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The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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‘Everybody has a role on this team’

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Photo by Photo courtesy of Bailey Orr, Texas A&M Athletics

Senior center Ciera Johnson is one of eight transfers on Texas A&M’s 2020-2021 roster. 

The only thing more difficult for student-athletes than establishing themselves in their respective programs, is to do it again as a transfer. Eight players on the Texas A&M women’s basketball roster are familiar with such challenges.
Ella Tofaeono, a junior center from Midland College, said transferring is always difficult, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made the process even more so.
“It really sucked, I’m not going to lie,” Tofaeono said. “When we came in during the summertime, there were so many protocols we had to follow and we didn’t get the normal preparation. It was just a crazy time to be an athlete.”
Destiny Pitts, a senior guard from the University of Minnesota, made the cross-country move to College Station late last spring. She said the challenge of joining a new program during a time of limited team interaction was only exacerbated by her senior status.
“I would say it’s pretty difficult the older you are, just because when you’re younger, you have more time to adjust and acclimate,” Pitts said. “Being in the position I’m in as a senior, you have to adjust really quickly because you only have one more year.”
Of A&M’s 15-person roster, over half have transferred into the program — four this season. In addition to Tofaeono and Pitts, junior guards Zaay Green and Alexis Morris are wearing maroon and white for the first time this season. Green transferred from within the SEC after sustaining an injury that cut her sophomore year at Tennessee short, while Morris was formerly at Rutgers. Both Green and Morris were granted immediate eligibility to play for the Aggies.
A&M has also been a landing spot for transfers in other years. Senior guard Aaliyah Wilson spent her freshman year at Arkansas before joining the Aggies in 2017, and redshirt sophomore guard Jordan Nixon previously played for Notre Dame. Senior centers Anna Dreimane and Ciera Johnson also transferred in after their freshman seasons — Dreimane from Colorado State in 2018 and Johnson from Louisville in 2017.
While searching for a transfer destination, Tofaeono said she was not afforded the opportunity to visit A&M’s campus or tour its facilities due to COVID-19 protocols. The Australia native instead relied on virtual tours and meetings throughout the recruitment process.
Although she’s confident she belongs in Aggieland, Tofaeono said adapting to a new program’s culture and building chemistry with new teammates is anything but easy.
“You’re kind of like the new kid at school who has to find your groove and almost have to prove yourself,” Tofaeono said. “I’m not one to like change … that’s why I picked to come to A&M, because I knew it was going to be hard. Just handling adversity and facing life challenges that I’ve never been exposed to before — it’s all part of the experience, really.”
In addition to wanting to challenge herself and remain in Texas, Tofaeono said she chose A&M for more reasons than its basketball program.
“Being able to represent alumni in the agriculture, mechanical and engineering field is a pretty big deal to me because I know how hard they work — my granddad is a rancher,” Tofaeono said. “It means a lot getting to represent that in an athletic way. It’s a life thing, not just a basketball thing.”
A&M coach Gary Blair said he not only recognizes Tofaeono’s appreciation for the opportunity to represent the Aggies, but he also called her the “best junior college player” due to her skills on the court. 
“Ella isn’t just a kid that wants to come in and play ball to hurry up and play overseas or in the WNBA,” Blair said. “She wants the full experience of A&M, which friends and fellow Texans can give her. If campus was going on [in-person] now, everyone on campus would know who Ella is. It’s just that bubbly personality.”
Pitts said her decision to join the program came down to the people, specifically the 12th Man and A&M’s coaching staff. A family atmosphere, the opportunity to play somewhere with a winning culture and the chance to compete for a national championship were also priorities for Pitts.
“Since I was already at a high institution with nice facilities, for me, the facilities were cool, but it was more about how the team interacts with one another,” Pitts said. “I was excited to build those relationships with the coaches … I feel like anything you do, the people really make the experience.”
Blair spoke highly of each of the late additions and said he sees great potential in Tofaeono and Pitts, commending the latter for her patience.
“A lot of kids want to come into an open spot. Destiny knew she was coming into a loaded spot with Kayla Wells and [Aaliyah] Wilson going into their senior year,” Blair said. “She was willing to come in and share the time and find her spot with the team.”
When asked why A&M’s program attracts so many transfers, Blair said the history and reputation of the program speak volumes.
“Counting last year, we’ve been in 15 straight NCAA Tournaments … They know we graduate people, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how good we are in education,” Blair said. “When they come here and go to a football or basketball game, they see just how special [it is], and it’s not quite like these other schools.”
Pitts said she believes transfers like herself are drawn to A&M for the chance to play for such experienced coaches.
“The opportunity Coach Blair gives us and the winning culture that the people that played here before us built, I think that attracts a lot of people,” Pitts said. “I have a feeling all of our [assistant] coaches could go be a head coach somewhere.”
The resources available to student-athletes are another reason Tofaeono said she believes transfers are drawn to A&M’s program, in addition to the caliber at which the team plays. She said no matter who their opponent is each week, the competition is a challenge and there are no easy wins.
With a few months of experience at A&M under their belts, Tofaeono and Pitts said there is a considerable difference in the intensity of their former leagues and the SEC.
Tofaeono said A&M’s program is a much more professional environment, and while she was among the tallest at the junior college level, she’s now one of the smallest in the conference at 6-foot-3. She also admitted she rarely looked at her scouting report or paid attention to film while at Midland College, but has since had to change her habits.
“It’s been a massive jump,” Tofaeono said. “You really have to study the game of basketball here to separate yourself from everybody else. It really is just hard work.”
Pitts, a former Big Ten athlete, said she is still adjusting to the SEC’s level of play.
“The Big Ten can compete well, but I think the SEC is just more athletic, quicker and faster,” Pitts said. “I was able to get acclimated to the speed of the players, [but] I still think I’m kind of learning.”
Blair said team practices are critical, especially for transfers. He said his philosophy is that if they want to be the best, they have to compete against the best every day. 
Tofaeono and Pitts both agreed such preparation is proven effective.
“Practices are literally a fight. Every single day, it’s a grind,” Tofaeono said. “The fact that A&M competes extremely well in the SEC — I knew I was going to get pushed and it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. I’ve had more challenges here than I’ve had comfortable experiences, which is what you need to grow in life.”
While each member is still perfecting their craft and discovering their individual role on the team, the Aggies started the season off on a high note by remaining undefeated in nonconference play. Both Tofaeono and Pitts said they’re dedicated to developing into the best players they can be and hope to improve throughout the season, contributing in whatever way possible.
“I’m just making sure I’m ready and making sure there isn’t a drop off if Ciera [Johnson] needs a sub. Just being able to fill that gap is crucial,” Tofaeono said. “Whether it’s competing and working hard against the team at practice, being physical, out-rebounding — it’s always my goal to make the other bigs better. Everybody has a role on this team.”

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    Photo by Photo courtesy of Bailey Orr, Texas A&M Athletics
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