After missing out on making the NCAA Division II All-American team as a sophomore, center Niki Bracken of the Cal Poly Pomona women’s basketball team was determined to make a bigger impression this season.
But a preseason injury to a teammate may have forced her hand.
When all-conference forward Marcine Edmonds was lost with a knee injury before the first game last November, Bracken knew she would have to carry more of the scoring and rebounding burden.
“I just felt I had to help pick up for what we lost in her,” the 19-year-old Bracken said. “I wanted to do more rebounding anyway because that’s why I didn’t make All-American last year, and I also wanted to get more because of Marcine.”
The plan has been working to perfection for Bracken. The 6-2 junior is the leading scorer and rebounder for the Broncos, who are ranked No. 3 nationally in Division II with a 24-5 record. They play host to Cal State Hayward (13-14) in the first round of the NCAA West Regional at 8 p.m. Friday. She is averaging 18.9 points and 8.8 rebounds.
“She’s done a good job at doing that,” Pomona Coach Darlene May said of Bracken’s improvement in her inside game. “She knows she’s our inside game.”
Bracken also says she is more of a leader now.
“The players kind of look up to me more,” she said. “With Marcine and me there, they’d look up to both of us, but with Marcine gone they look up to me more. But I like that responsibility. The team knows they can count on me.”
Not to mention the improvement in other facets of her game.
“I’m much more of an all-around player,” Bracken said. “Before I just played offense. But now I realize that my offense will come, but you have to play defense. Our motto here is our defense is our offense .”
As a junior at Compton High, Bracken started for a team that won the CIF Southern Section 4-A Division title. The team also featured point guard Cathy Gooden, who is Pomona’s second-leading scorer.
In her final year in high school, Bracken earned All-CIF honors but concedes that it was not her best season. That may have cost her when it came to being recruited for college.
“She would have been recruited by a lot of Division I schools, but she had a very poor senior year,” May said.
Although she was initially recruited by Division I schools Texas, UCLA, Colorado and Cal State Fullerton, it wasn’t difficult for Bracken to finally settle on Division II Pomona.
“It didn’t really matter as long as I was going to college and they were going to pay for it,” Bracken said. “I didn’t really want to go to a big-time school like a UCLA, but I wanted to stay close to home because I’m kind of a mama’s girl.”
She also figured that attending Pomona, a perennial Division II power, would enable her to see playing time sooner than in a Division I program.
“It gave me the possibility of starting instead of sitting on the bench my freshman year. Coming from high school I wasn’t used to sitting on the bench, so I didn’t want to go somewhere and sit.”
May: “I knew she had the ability but someone had to bring it out of her. Even now she has a lot of ability that’s untapped. If she ever played to her potential, there’s no telling how good she’d be.”
Bracken: “I realized I couldn’t be as lazy as I was in high school. That’s what my reputation was in high school. I had the potential but I never brought it out.”
That began to change at Pomona with a little prodding from May, assistant Barb Thaller and some of Bracken’s teammates.
“Barb really put in a lot of time and effort with her and pushed her,” May said.
“It has been easy because I was a quiet person,” Bracken said. “I still am. All I do is what she (May) says I should do, and I don’t ask questions unless I don’t understand.”
“I think it took her whole freshman year even to learn how to practice,” May said. “Now she’s even a pretty good practice player.”
Bracken said she did not have great strength when she arrived at Pomona and credits former All-American point guard Michelle McCoy with pointing her to the weight room: “I always had the jumping ability, but Michelle got me stronger.”
That helped improve her shooting form.
“I used to shoot from behind my head, but now I shoot from in front of my forehead so that gives me a better follow-through,” Bracken said.
With better shooting form, Bracken has shown steady improvement in her three years with the Broncos.
As a freshman, she averaged 14.5 points and 7.6 rebounds and made the All-California Collegiate Athletic Assn. second team and the all-freshman squad for Division II in helping the Broncos finish second in the national tournament.
In averaging 17.1 points and 7.2 rebounds last year, she once again earned All-CCAA second team selection and was named to the Division II All-West Region squad as Pomona reached the NCAA quarterfinals. She also set NCAA regional records with 44 points in a playoff game against Alaska-Anchorage and 59 points in her first two playoff games.
For the most part, Bracken says she has been happy with her improvement as a junior. The only point of distress has been injuries, which have nagged her throughout the season.
She missed a non-conference game against UC Santa Barbara in December because of stomach flu. But she said the most nagging problem has been her ankle, which she sprained against Chapman on Feb. 9. That forced her to miss the next two games.
“It has its good days and its bad days, but if I get it taped every day I’ll just bite the bullet because the team needs me,” she said.
If Bracken’s performance in the CCAA Tournament last week is indicative, the ankle is heeling well. In leading the Broncos to the tournament title, Bracken scored 30 points in the 75-62 win over Cal State Northridge in the championship game and was selected the tournament’s most valuable player.
It’s such performances that make May wonder about Bracken’s potential.
“Niki Bracken can dominate any game she wants to,” May said. “She just has to want to. When she exerts herself she’s truly an All-American. When she doesn’t she’s just like any other player.”
The coach thinks Bracken has the ability to improve even more as a rebounder.
“I think even if Marcine were playing she should get those kind of numbers (rebounding),” May said. “I think Niki should average 10 rebounds a game with no sweat. I think that’s a little disappointing for her and she’d probably tell you that.”
If nothing else, Bracken says she can be more consistent next season by staying healthy and thinks she knows the solution.
“I kind of realized why I’m getting these injuries,” she said. “I stopped lifting weights this season. I usually lift during the season and after, but I stopped doing it. But next year I’ll do that again.”
In the meantime, Bracken would like nothing less than back-to-back berths on the Division II All-America team.
“I was trying to go for it all four years but it didn’t work out,” she said. “So I’ll just try to get it my last two years.”
She also would like the Broncos to have another shot at a Division II title.
“I want to get it (a championship) at least one of my years here. This seems like a good year.”