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Yencha a perfect fit for nationally-ranked Jefferson WBB

01/19/2023, 10:15am EST
By Jared Leveson

Jared Leveson (@jared_leveson)

PHILADELPHIA — College recruiting is like dating. 

A coach will meet a player they like and call them up for a couple ‘dates’. The coach invites the prospect to visit campus, grab a bite to eat, and meet the player’s family. 

“And then you break up or get married,” Jefferson head coach Tom Shirley said. “That's what happens, that’s it.” 

The 33-year head coach knows his way around the recruiting trail. He knows the best places to look and the types of players he likes for his program. However, Shirley sometimes alters course and pursues a stranger that catches his eye. 

Sam Yencha (above) is a major reason why Jefferson is ranked in the top 15 in the NCAA Division II poll. (Photo courtesy Jefferson Athletics)

While watching the Keystone Karma play at a tournament in Harrisburg in the summer of 2019, a player he wasn’t there to scout got his attention. Shirley’s mind flooded with questions: Where’s the scorebook? What school does she play at? Who is this player? 

That player was Sam Yencha, who played high school ball for the tiny Holy Redeemer school in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Shirley and Yencha’s relationship almost ended in a break-up. But ever since she committed, the 5-foot-11 forward has been a perfect fit for Shirley’s No. 12 Jefferson (16-2, 8-0) squad because of her tenacity on the glass and her equally unrelenting work ethic. 

“I’m so happy that I chose (Jefferson),” Yencha, a sophomore, said after the game. “A lot of the practices (Shirley) comes up to me and says ‘this is a great fit’ and I'm like ‘Yeah, I made the right choice.

“Jefferson felt like the best fit for me because of my major, the girls on the team, and the location from my home.” 

Yencha wanted to play for a winning program at the collegiate level and she’s done her part to fulfill that desire. She came into an experienced team as a freshman, but out-worked older teammates, carving out a starting role for herself and has blossomed into a critical piece of the Rams’ success the past two seasons. 

The biopsychology major, who dreams of one day going to medical school or becoming a physician’s assistant, started 32 of 33 games as a freshman last season. She averaged 6.8 ppg and 6.5 rpg and helped the Rams get their first NCAA tournament win since 1998.

“I don't usually start freshmen, if I am being honest with you,” Shirley said about Yencha’s early success. “(One) kid graduated and then we had another kid that was the incumbent, but Sam beat her out, and like I said ‘the oldest salesman doesn’t become the sales manager, the best salesman becomes the sales manager.’

Yencha is shooting better than 52% from the floor this season. (Photo courtesy Jefferson athletics)

“Sam was better. So, I started Sam.” 

Yencha’s teammates were not surprised that she found her way into the starting lineup. Her effort and drive were evident since the moment she arrived at Jefferson’s campus. 

Morgan Robinson, the Rams’ stalwart point guard, knew immediately that Yencha brought a little more to the table than her size, athleticism, and skill. 

“She is able to get a hand on every ball either a deflection or a rebound, maybe a steal,” the junior said about Yencha. “(She) allows us to get second chance points and to start our fast breaks on defense. 

“She goes for everyball,” Robinson added. “She’s a hustler like I always want her on my team when we’re picking teams (in practice) because I know me and her have the same mentality.” 

Yencha has only improved since her freshman campaign. She is averaging 11 ppg and 10 rpg in 2022-2023. Her ability to build off a strong first season is credited to her work ethic and narrowed focus on the floor. 

Yencha played at Holy Redeemer, a school that had a graduating class of around 100 kids. In other words, her high school basketball team was not deep and Yencha had to do a little bit of everything for her team to win. 

“Sometimes she'd bring the ball up, sometimes she shot jumpers, (and) sometimes she posted up,” Shirley said about Yencha’s development from high school to college. “We defined her role as an interior player, a post-up player, a rebounder, and a short-range jump shooter. I think in defining her role she's been able to focus more. 

“Nobody works harder than Sam. I said tonight ‘you’re the unsung hero’ and that's what she’s done all year.” 

Yencha’s presence on the floor is invaluable for the Rams who have their eyes on a CACC championship and a deep NCAA tournament run. She rarely comes off the floor, averaging 33 minutes per game, and playing the full 40 minutes in three different games, including Tuesday night’s win 65-50 over Holy Family (13-6, 8-1). 

“She’s a tough kid,” Shirley added. “I don’t even think about taking her out. Unless, she's got foul trouble.” 

“I was just trying to go and get every single board to get us another offensive possession or get ourselves the ball back on defense,” Yencha said about her 10-point, 17-rebound double-double performance, which included eight offensive rebounds.

“My role is to rebound and I like rebounding,” she added. “You have to want it more than the other girl.” 

Yencha's rebounding was a major reason why Jefferson beat crosstown rival Holy Family on Tuesday night. (Photo courtesy Jefferson athletics)

Yencha’s career rebounding night helped the Rams defeat their city and CACC rival. Her effort was the difference in a game that was back-and-forth until the fourth quarter when Jefferson outscored Holy Family 24-15, helping the Rams secure the 15-point win. The Rams also out-rebounded the Tigers 47-33. The biggest stat; however, was second-chance points. Yencha’s effort on the offensive glass gave Jefferson 16 second chance points, and her defensive rebounding limited Holy Family to two. 

Yencha always envisioned herself playing at the collegiate level. Jefferson was the first school that invited her for a visit, bringing her dream closer to reality. Yencha toured the campus, had lunch with the team, and watched practice. She had that feeling deep down that Jefferson would become her new home.

But some people like to play ‘hard to get’ in the dating world. The same is true about the recruiting process and Yencha wanted to see what some other schools had to offer before making her final decision. 

“I like to play hard to get with Coach Shirley,” Yencha said laughing. “I waited until the very last minute to commit.” 

Shirley had done this dance before and understands why players delay their college decision. It’s a big choice, but there was another player in line for Yencha’s scholarship and Shirley could not wait forever. 

“I felt like we had a good enough relationship that she wasn't going to not come to play for me,” Shirley recalled. “But at the same time I said look, ‘if you don't take the scholarship, (the other player’s) going to get it, and I can't hold her off forever.” 

The pair agreed on a two-week deadline for Yencha’s decision. She took her time, called Shirley on the 14th day, and committed to Jefferson in December of her senior year. 

“I said ‘when did you know’,” Shirley asked Yencha about her decision. “She said ‘the last time we talked’.” 

“I was holding out,” Yencha added. “But deep down I always knew that I was gonna end up here.

“I like to keep (Shirley) on his toes.”

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