It is official as the final Cougar from the 2021-22 Western Nebraska Community College women’s basketball team signed to continue at the next level.

                All-in-all, WNCC is sending seven players onto the NCAA Division I level, the most in school history, with a flurry of signings in May and June.

                The previous high was four Division I signings back in 2002. In between the 20-year gap, there has been anywhere from two to three players signing to play at the Division I level.

                The Division I signings all started during the season when Ale’Jah Douglas signed to play at Clemson University back in November. That was followed a month after the season when freshman Shayane Poirot signed to play at Western Carolina University.

                Then the flurry of signings happened as five players signed beginning in May. That flurry started when Aminata Zie signed to play at the Division I level in the Big 10 with the University of Minnesota Gophers. Soon after, Amani Brown found herself heading to the Division I level, signing with the University of Louisiana-Monroe.

                Ashley Panem was next as she picked Radford University followed closely behind by Shanti Henry, who is headed to Sam Houston State in Texas. The final signing was Payton Fields and Fields is headed to join former Cougar coach Chad Gibney at St. Bonaventure University in upstate New York.

                “To have so many sophomores go Division 1 is a testament to how great this team really was,” Panam said. “We all bought into what Coach Gibney wanted us to do and sacrificed the individual for the team. In the end that’s what got everyone where they deserve to be.”

                Henry said the bond that the players had on the team showcased just how team-oriented they were. She said it is the fact that they are now “Cougars 4 life.”

                “I think the fact that everyone who is moving on to another school is going D1 just proves how good of players we had on our team,” the Wichita, Kansas, native said. “it’s pretty crazy to think about how much talent we had on our team and I think our season results show that. Competing in practice against each other every day was probably the most beneficial thing for all of us since we were each other’s hardest competition. I’m also just really proud of my teammates and can’t wait to see what they all they accomplish next year at their new schools!”

                The seven could be facing each other at the next level at some point of the season.

                Henry and Panem actually graduated in 2021 from WNCC but because of COVID, they had the option to return. It was one of their best decisions because the options for college opened up even more.

                “Playing at the next level has been my goal since the beginning, so being able to accomplish this goal meant all my hard work has paid off,” Henry, who transferred to WNCC from Mineral Area Community College, said. “It feels pretty fulfilling and I’m excited for this next chapter.”

Her decision to find Sam Houston State was challenging of finding the right fit for her.

“Finding a school wasn’t too difficult because my coaches at WNCC helped with having options to pick from so in the end it was just difficult picking the best school for me,” Henry said. “There’s a lot of factors I took into my decision. In the end I choose the school that felt most like home.”

In the end, it was the Division I school in Texas that fit Henry’s bill.

“I chose Sam Houston State after going on my visit and I just felt it was the right fit for me,” she said. “When I met the coaches in person for the first time, I could tell that they really cared about their players and program. It felt like a family atmosphere, and I could definitely see myself playing there and enjoying it.”

For Panem, she spent a year at the Division I level at Florida Gulf Coast University before transferring to WNCC. The Broomfield, Colorado, native said she wanted to go back to the Division I level to play and found a perfect fit in Radford.

“It means a lot because I have always wanted to back to the division level and compete. Now I have that chance again,” Panem said. “I chose Radford because it gave me the best option and the best opportunity. It was a quick decision, but it felt right, and I didn’t want to wait any longer because of how crazy the portal is.”

Radford head coach Mike McGuire said he is excited to have Panem on the team.

“Ashley is a high-level two-way player. She is a talented, versatile offensive player but will also have the ability to impact the game on the defensive end of the floor,” he said. “Ashley is a complete player in our eyes. She is excited to come here and make a difference for our program. I am really looking forward to working with Ashley over the next two years."        

Brown is joining the Louisiana-Monroe team as someone that head coach Brooks Donald Williams is excited to be getting a NJCAA all-American. Brown was an All-American two years ago at Vincennes University before transferring to WNCC last season. She also went over the 1,000 career point list in her three years at the two junior colleges.

“We are thrilled about Amani joining our program," Williams said. "Amani is a big-time addition to our backcourt. She is a scoring punch and can play multiple positions. She is a high-level finisher and has an edge about her, offensively.

“Amani is a scoring guard and a playmaker that fits our team and shoots the ball with a high efficiency. She has played for one of the best teams in the country at the JUCO level, was extremely well coached and gives our team an added dimension on both ends of the floor."

Brown said her dream has always been to play Division I and she got that opportunity when she transferred to WNCC for a third year of eligibility because of the COVID year.

“It's been my dream to play D1 somewhere down south since I was a kid," Brown said. "Actually, getting this opportunity is a blessing. I am very grateful and excited for this next chapter at ULM and hope to bring success, positivity and more. I wouldn't be who I am without my parents, so thank you to them and everyone else who has helped me along the way."

Fields was the last Cougar to sign and she said because of the transfer portal, her recruiting picked up late. But, Fields is excited to be joining her junior college coach.

“I wanted to find a place with a culture that aligned with hard work and playing for each other,” Fields said in a story in her hometown of El Paso, Texas. “I’m excited about the opportunity. With the transfer portal, recruiting for me picked up late, but things worked out and I’m looking forward to playing at the Division I level. I loved playing at Western Nebraska. The learning experience and culture at Western Nebraska was amazing. We had a strong team bond and we played for each other and pushed each other to be the best we could be.”

All-in-all, the seven had great memories of their time at WNCC, where they helped the women’s basketball team make the Final Four at last March’s national tournament in Lubbock, Texas.

“My time at WNCC has been nothing but great,” Panem said. “I enjoyed my time on the court learning how to play different roles and gaining my confidence back. I have grown so much as a player and I’m so grateful that I have learned so much.

“My favorite part of WNCC was probably making it to the national tournament both years and definitely going to the final four this year. I enjoyed my teammates and especially after this year I know we will still keep in touch.”

For Henry, her two years at WNCC has been something that she will cherish for a lifetime where the 3-point shooting ace grew as a player and person.

“My time at WNCC has been filled with ups and downs but I wouldn’t trade my time for anything,” Henry said. “My game has grown so much as a player. I’ve gained more confidence and matured all around. I appreciate my coaches for always being patient with me and helping me to develop my game in places I was lacking.”

Henry said the past two years is filled with memories, especially being around her teammates 24/7.

“My favorite memories at WNCC would be going to nationals twice and just ballin’ and hangin’ with my friends. I always enjoyed playing at nationals because we had pretty good competition and that is what makes basketball fun,” she said. “Also just goofing around at practice or while traveling to games with my teammates and coaches. Just being bored in the dorms with my teammates is something I’ll miss. We always kept ourselves entertained!”

The hardest part for Henry wasn’t choosing a college but leaving WNCC. It was harder than she realized.

“Leaving WNCC in May was a lot harder than I ever imagined it would be,” Henry said. “It is crazy to think since I would constantly complain about how small the town was but it’s not about the location but the people. I made some great friendships, and it was hard to say goodbye to them. I’ve been with some of those friends for two years so not being around them anymore will be very new. I got pretty close to all my teammates, so not being with them 24/7 is going to be sad.”