Hoop dreams: Hostos women’s basketball falls just short of historic feat 

Some of the Hostos Caimans women's basketball players are seen on campus on Thursday, March 16, 2023.
Some of the Hostos Caimans women’s basketball players are seen on campus on Thursday, March 16, 2023. The squad tied the school’s record for six consecutive CUNY Athletic Conference championships this season, but fell short of the the National Junior College Athletic Association Region XV title.
Photo Camille Botello

The afternoon sunlight illuminated the women’s basketball plaques hanging above the doors of the Hostos Community College gymnasium on March 16. They show students and visitors an array of accolades, including six consecutive CUNY Athletic Conference (CUNYAC) championships — the most recent one this season — which tied the record for most successive conference titles in school history.

But the sun had set on the squad’s run at the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Region XV championship earlier this month, after the Lady Caimans dropped their first game in the tournament to Monroe College, 74-56, one of the Bronx’s toughest JuCo basketball programs. 

Dwight Shaw, the second-year head coach of the Hostos team, told the Bronx Times in an interview last month that the Monroe Express squad has proved to be tough competition over the years. He only has 11 losses total under his belt at Hostos, but more than over half of them have been to that one opponent team. 

“This is my second year, and I’m 0-6 against Monroe Express,” he said. 

Monroe College, just a few neighborhoods north of Hostos in Fordham Heights, has two other campuses in New Rochelle and St. Lucia. The women’s basketball program finished 7th in the NJCAA tournament this year after dropping their consolation game to Anoka-Ramsey Community College, 68-61, in Minnesota on March 17. 

For seniors on the Hostos squad, their final postseason games are always emotional — perhaps even more so this year, when the Lady Caimans had a record-tying season.

Dimon Walker is one of the graduating seniors on the squad — a first-team All-American player, as well as a first-team All-Academic. She said coming to the end of her last season with the Lady Caimans was bittersweet. 

“I did enjoy my time here at Hostos, it was amazing,” Walker said. “Great atmosphere — family oriented, we’ve all known each other for years — so to come and play with each other is a great feeling. Leaving though, I’m going to miss this whole place.”  

The roads these women took to become Lady Caimans, national champions and college athletes and scholars vary. The pathway to collegiate and professional basketball is ultra-exclusive, and for women, those pathways have always been historically narrow – with 1.3 million fewer opportunities to play high school ball than boys.

What makes Hostos basketball? 

Hostos coaches have long chipped away at the “Division I or bust” mindset that some collegiate hoop hopefuls swear by.

According to a December 2022 NCAA trends report, the odds for a high school girls athlete making a Division I roster is 81 to 1. The odds of making any NCAA roster is 14 to 1.

It can be a challenge, Shaw and other junior college coaches in the city told the Bronx Times, for a JUCO to build a consistent basketball program. 

“Sometimes when kids who go to Division III or any JuCo, they’re like ‘I just want to play basketball’ and the average person (trying out), they think they can play and they probably will never be able to get on the court,” said Marquee Poole, Hostos’ assistant athletic director and the head men’s basketball coach.

From left to right: Marquee Poole, Harold Barter III, and Dwight Shaw pose at the Hostos gym on Thursday, March 16, 2023.
From left: Marquee Poole, Harold Barter III and Dwight Shaw at the Hostos gym on Thursday, March 16, 2023. Photo Camille Botello

Standing at 6 feet 2 inches tall, Bronx native Aiyana Hicks has Division I talent. The senior led the nation in blocks upon earning 2023 CUNYAC Player of the Year honors.

A graduate of the public school powerhouse Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers in Lower Manhattan, Hicks said her basketball career was a “bigger platform” by the time she went to high school.

“My dad was a coach coaching boys, and I started off playing basketball with boys because at the time (there) was no girls playing basketball,” Hicks told the Bronx Times. She said she started playing hoops when she was around 6 or 7 years old.

But what makes Hicks the player she is — what she attributes her accolades to — isn’t her technical game. It’s not even herself. 

“I’ll say my dad, because he started me off with basketball,” she said. “I continue playing because of him.”

Some of Shaw’s recruits, like Hicks, have honed their game since they were young and have been battle tested in the city’s competitive high school basketball landscape.

His connection with Walker, the All-American point guard, transcends their time at Hostos. Walker was previously coached by Shaw at her alma mater Nazareth Regional High School in Brooklyn.

“He’s really a big reason why I’m here and a big part of my game,” Walker said. “So when he asked me to come (to Hostos), it was a no-brainer.”

For Shaw, the mindset he hopes to instill in his Lady Caimans is to take advantage of educational opportunities, whether at Hostos or elsewhere. He said he is equally proud of Walker’s academic exploits — a first-team All-Academic — as he is her gaudy shooting numbers.

“We try to create that narrative and make sure that they understand ‘free is me’ – whether it’s Division I, II or III, education is an education, and you can be a pro from any level,” said Shaw.

Hostos’ main campus is housed in the nation’s poorest congressional district, the South Bronx, where poverty rates have hovered around 40% for at least a decade. According to editorial director of The Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program, Jon Solomon, kids living in low-income circumstances are six times more likely to quit sports due to high costs.

Junior colleges vary from school to school with how much scholarship money they are able to offer. Some programs offer full scholarships and others are only able to offer partial scholarships or none. The endgame for Shaw is the pursuit of an education, often telling his players to use the sport as a tool for a free, low-cost degree.

Some of his players came to Hostos just for the education, but impressed the coaching staff enough in open gyms and tryouts to earn a spot on the team as walk-ons.

One of those players who didn’t really think about a collegiate basketball career until she enrolled was freshman Zaire Bailey.

“My high school was a performing arts school, so it was kind of different. They didn’t have a team at all,” said Bailey. “I had to literally pick up dancers and singers, like ‘Hey, can you just play on the team?’” 

She started a women’s basketball team at her high school — the Theatre Arts Production Company School in the West Bronx — when she was a student there, and did softball and dance, but hoops was always second tier to her. 

“I started playing basketball because of my best friend,” Bailey said. “I used to step, I never thought about picking up a basketball.”   

Freshman Vanecia Brown comes up for a jump shot at a Hostos open gym on Thursday, March 16, 2023.
Vanecia Brown pulls up for a jump shot at a Hostos open gym on Thursday, March 16, 2023. Photo Camille Botello

Looking ahead to next season

This culture of family, trust and togetherness is a big part of Hostos women’s basketball, from the starting five to the reserves to the coaching staff. Shaw attributes much of Hostos’ success thus far to Poole, who instills a fierce commitment to the blue-and-orange.

“It takes a village. He does everything for the program … he embodies Hostos, he’s been here forever,” said Shaw.

Especially in the face of adversity, like this past season when player injuries ranged in severity from jammed fingers to torn ligaments.

Freshman Vanecia Brown, a lifelong hooper of 16 years, tore her ACL and lateral meniscus in Hostos’ first preseason game. She’s in recovery, about four months post-op now, and says she’s tried to contribute to the team in other ways this season. 

“Honestly, I’m the Hostos Caimans’ biggest cheerleader right now,” Brown said. “I had to learn how to support my teammates and be there for them differently because I couldn’t physically be on the court with them.”  

Shaw emphasized that keeping consistency within the program, maximizing opportunities for players and finding local talent on the recruiting trail are his main goals next season — not just reining victorious over Monroe Express or breaking Hostos’ record for most consecutive CUNY Athletic Conference championships. 

He said local recruiting is tough for any JuCo program, but he prioritizes finding talent within the borough.

“One of my main focus honestly because we are in Hostos, is recruiting strong, keeping the Bronx the Bronx,” Shaw said. “Recruiting in the Bronx is important for me.”

Reach Robbie Sequeira at [email protected] or (718) 260-4599, and reach Camille Botello at [email protected].

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