Samantha Stickler accepts the Player of the Year award at last winter’s sports banquet.
“I don’t regret it at all,” said Stickler, who signed a letter of intent April 18 to play Division I college basketball at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. “I came back my senior year wanting to play more than ever.”
As a senior, Stickler did her talking on the court. She averaged 26.5 points, 12.1 rebounds and 5.1 blocked shots per game — all school records. And most importantly, she led the Lady Phantoms to their first-ever berth in the Class 1A State Tournament.
“After taking a year off, I kind of saw a different person in her,” said Andrew Aldaz, Stickler’s high-school coach at GCHS. “She improved her field goal percentage, but I also thought she improved in the love of the game. She gave it a little more heart than I had seen in the past.”
UNLV will be the next stop for Stickler. The Rebels heard about the Grand Canyon phenom after being contacted by Aldaz.
“Coach Aldaz called us and said he had a kid who was 6-6, 6-7, and that piqued our interest,” UNLV assistant coach Forzena Jerro said. “You don’t find too many young ladies with that kind of height. And she’s an extremely good student. We felt like she could be an asset for us.”
Stickler and her family took an unofficial trip to Las Vegas to check out the campus and meet coaches. An official visit came later, just a few weeks ago. At 5 p.m. on April 18, she signed to receive a full-ride scholarship that could be worth in the vicinity of $100,000 over five years.
“This season, they are expected to go a lot further than they did,” Stickler said of the program. “Things just didn’t come together as coaches had planned. For the next year or two, they’re expecting to get an NCAA bid and that sort of thing.”
And what about skipping the junior year? Did UNLV’s coaches have any concerns?
“There were a lot of schools that I talked to that questioned her commitment to the game,” Aldaz said. “She showed us a lot this year than in the past. She made more of a commitment not only to play better, but to win. That kind of carried on to the rest of the team.”
Stickler said she didn’t play her junior year because of per-sonal reasons. But that’s in the past.
“They were concerned about my commitment but after meeting with me and talking to me … I told them that if I decided to do this, I will commit to do this,” she said.
Stickler will enter the program with that intimidating height along with raw talent. High-school and club team coaches were able to tap into some of her talent but she’s expected to really blossom in college.
“At this point, we’re looking at her to come in like any other freshman,” Jerro said. “She’s coming in with the mindset of being ready to go. She has some areas to improve on, but we feel she has a good enough base. If she’s willing to put forth the effort, she will get a lot better.”
UNLV rarely looks at redshirting freshmen, saving those for medical hardship cases. Stickler plans to start classes this summer and begin weight training workouts.
“The NCAA allows us to pay for a summer school session prior to attending the first fall semester,” Jerro said. “We encourage the kids to get a jump on it academically. In the overall scheme of things, it will allow her to get acclimated to everything. And during that time, our strength and conditioning people will be here on campus and available.”
Stickler, who plans to major in psychology, said she will leave Grand Canyon the first week of June. She chose UNLV over Idaho State, Montana State and Weber State. Several other larger schools were also contacted by Aldaz, including Arizona State, Arizona, Northern Arizona and New Mexico.
“I’ve always thought she could play at a higher level,” Aldaz said. “She has some pretty good skills and if she continues to develop those skills, the sky’s the limit for her.”
Stickler is confident about her future, but realizes the college pace will be little faster than Class 1A basketball in rural Arizona.
“I’d have to say what I need to work on most is playing at a high, competitive level, playing against girls who can push you around more,” she said.