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Missouri Connection Key to Highland Success

Missouri Connection Key to Highland Success

A coach and team members from Missouri have proven to be key elements of the success in the women’s basketball program at Highland Community College that resulted in the team’s recent climb to the top of the national rankings.  Assistant Coach Jillian Palan and player Janelle Saling are from Lathrop and player Jaaron Kassanavoid is from Lawson. 

All three were recruited to Highland, Palan to be the assistant coach and Kassanavoid and Saling as players, by former coach James Arnold who called them all in the summer of 2011 to let them know that he was accepting the head coaching job at Central Methodist University.  While all were shocked at first, they kept their commitment to the Scotties after hearing from new coach B.J. Smith, who had a proven track record of success in developing players at all levels to NCAA Division I.

The first priority Smith brought to the Highland program was discipline and conditioning.  Smith told the players to report in shape because the pre-season conditioning program was going to be the hardest thing they had ever done in their lives.  He was true to his word.  After the initial workouts, Kassanavoid and Saling had doubts they could make it through.  But, along with the help and encouragement of their teammates, they found new levels of self-discipline which gave them a sense of accomplishment.  Those workouts also built a team.  They quickly recognized that each team member who was able to get through the pre-season had a huge heart.  “If you don’t have heart, you won’t make it on this team,” they noted.  They also agreed that playing at the collegiate level is more than a game.  The amount of time and work involved makes playing the game more like a job; but a job they thoroughly enjoy.

After playing against each other in high school, and neither one coming from a winning program, Kassanavoid and Saling enjoyed playing together and helping establish Highland as a team to contend with in the Eastern Division of the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference.  With the success the Scotties had last year, getting as high as number four in the country, they were not able to get past conference foe Johnson County.  That changed early in the season this year.

Saling and Kassanavoid are two of only four members of the 2011-12 team who returned for this season.  Smith set out to add more athleticism and even without All-American Kathryn Thomas who transferred to the University of Iowa after her freshman year at Highland, the returners feel the 2012-13 Scotties are a better team than last year.  “When people found out Kathy wasn’t coming back, that is all we heard – that we weren’t going to be as successful.  We never felt that; we knew better.  We’re way more than one player.  We are a team.  Coach added some more players who fit well with us so we are actually better this year.”  If their game with Johnson County in the friendly confines of Allen Field House on the Highland campus is any indication, they are right.  That game came down to the final seconds as the Scotties came away with the win.

Being undefeated early in the season and beating Johnson County, who was number one at the time, resulted in the Scotties ascending the top of the national rankings for the first time in their history.  Staying number one is tough, as the Scotties found when they faced conference foes Cowley and Johnson again within a week.  Two tough losses later, the team is ready to re-focus and get ready for a run at the regional tournament so they can achieve their ultimate goal -- getting to the National Tournament.  Unfortunately, they are going to have to do that without the effective inside play of Kassanavoid.  A knee injury and impending surgery put an end to her final season of playing for the Scotties.  Now the team will need to rely more than ever on the heart they built in getting through the pre-season conditioning program.

While both Saling and Kassanavoid would like to continue playing following their graduation from Highland, their career goals may mean their collegiate playing days are drawing to an end.  Kassanavoid is planning to study dental hygiene and Saling will be entering the nursing field so the time and work they have been devoting to basketball may soon be directed to their studies in those fields.  Regardless, they know that their efforts in the last two years have prepared them for the work ahead.

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