Few people know how close Ayaka Nakashima’s record-breaking season came to never happening.
The Merced College sophomore guard was convinced she wasn’t that good of a basketball player and told the Blue Devil coaching staff she intended to hang up her sneakers and just be a full-time student. Women’s basketball coach Allen Huddleston is happy they were able to convince her otherwise.
Nakashima’s 91 3-pointers set a school single-season record, shattering the previous mark of 74 set by Megan Karker in the 2002-03 season. She accomplished all that while also getting recognized as a state scholar athlete. Nakashima isn’t done, either, with at least one more game to add to her record as the Devils head down south to participate in the California Community College Athletic Association state tournament quarterfinals on Friday afternoon.
“We could see from the beginning that she was a hard worker,” Huddleston said. “She wanted to be good and has put in a ton of extra time in the gym. There’s times we’ve had to make her take days off, that’s how hard she works. The biggest part for her, was believing in her ability to get it done. Once the confidence began to grow, then the records started to fall.
“I think for us, it’s an outstanding example of what some of our student athletes have done. As good a 3-point shooter as she is, she’s a better student. So, that speaks volumes when your players understand student first and athlete second.”
Nakashima’s path to her record-breaking season had plenty of obstacles.
College can be daunting enough for anyone. Imagine throwing in the time and dedication required to be a successful athlete, learning the nuances of American basketball and doing it while trying to learn another language and culture. It takes a special person to excel in all areas.
“When I was 15 years old, I came here to America to play basketball with my club team,” Nakashima said. “I had a good experience and I was interested in studying abroad. Merced was cheap and had a basketball team, so I decided to come here.
“Last season it was difficult to communicate with my team and coaches because of my English. I didn’t know how basketball was going to be here, but I’ve had a really great experience so far, and I learned we have a chance to be state champions.”
The language barrier was so great a season ago that Nakashima and teammate Suzuna Shoji didn’t understand that the team was playing for a state championship until after the title game was over.
A loving and supportive team and a full year in the U.S. has helped Nakashima find a comfort level in her sophomore campaign. Not coincidently, her confidence with the language and confidence on the court have steadily grown hand in hand.
“I broke the school record, but I couldn’t do it by myself,” Nakashima said. “My teammates trust me and pass me the ball. When I miss several shots in a row, my teammates and coaches tell me to keep shooting. So, their encouragement helped me.”
As quiet and unassuming as Nakashima is on the court, Huddleston said it was nice to see her enjoy her moment.
“Most of the time, the most we can get out of her is a little fist pump,” Huddleston said. “She was so excited about the record, though. And then to get the chance to meet Megan, who had the record. It just touched her tremendously that Megan would come out and watch her play.
“Just shows that hard work does pay off.”