Closing the First Chapter | The End of ACU Women’s Basketball’s First Era

From a distance, it was a day like any other. The lights of Fultz Memorial Gymnasium shined down on the Arizona Christian Women’s Basketball team as the team walked out of their locker room, connected to a stage sitting adjacent to the basketball court.

The afternoon’s opponent was Life Pacific, a team completing its first season in the NAIA with only six total athletes.

This day was certainly unique, though. It was the day of finalities. The last day of games in Fultz and the last college basketball game in Arizona for three special veterans.

Only five seasons ago, the Firestorm’s women’s basketball team posted a 5-24 record, the second most wins in program history. At the helm of building the program was a coach and three athletes who never initially planned on calling Arizona Christian home.

 

After a Final Four appearance in the 2013 AIA Girls Basketball Tournament, large expectations loomed over the Liberty Lion’s girls basketball squad. Head coach Odell Berry finished his second consecutive 20-win season and was slated to return young star, Courtney Christmas, for her junior year, who nearly averaged a double-double in her two seasons with the program.

With title expectations fresh on his mind, some parents began to call Berry mentioning a new opportunity in the distance. The women’s basketball program at Arizona Christian University was looking for a head coach. Berry wasn’t impressed.

“I knew ACU was not a place I wanted to go. I knew the basketball here was not great at that time,” Berry said. “It was a place to go where coaches might go to die.”

Nonetheless, parents insisted Berry apply for the job and give it a shot.

“I interviewed for the job, I applied with 10 applicants. About a month after the interview they contacted me and said they decided to go with another guy.”

Berry, an NCCAA National Champion as a player, wasn’t too beat up over the loss knowing a possible state championship could be in the grasp of Liberty only a few months down the road. Berry, though, had a feeling ACU’s offseason story wasn’t complete.

“About a week later I got a call from Len Munsil, the president [of ACU], he asked me to go to coffee with him. He talked me into coming. The other guy decided this wasn’t the place for him.”

Berry accepted the job in July of 2013. After 35 years of coaching at the high school ranks, a new journey was about to begin, but a major roadblock stood where Berry had to make his first step.

“School started in two weeks. We had no schedule, no recruits.”

 

First Things First

Berry decided the first job was finding great assistant coaches.

In 2011, Doug Berry coached his Desert Mountain girls basketball team to a win over his father’s Liberty Lions. He decided to follow his father to the NAIA program. Also following Berry and his son was Wes Puchhatti, a long-time assistant of Berry’s from Liberty.

After building a schedule and finalizing the roster, Berry created his timetable for success knowing it wouldn’t come easy. “I said, ‘I think it would take us five years to build a program that’s respectable,” Berry said.

Berry’s first season went as well as could be expected, a 5-24 final record. A bright spot was apparent in beating Benedictine College, an NAIA top 25 team. The second season brought an improvement to 6-23. Entering 2015, Berry found a freshmen class that could potentially become the face of the program.

 

Courtney Christmas’ senior season at Liberty ended in the AIA quarterfinals in 2015. As a senior, Christmas averaged 20 points, seven rebounds and four steals per game. Berry had known Christmas since she was in grade school and knew she could be an asset to his young program at ACU.

“Courtney started coming to my camps her 7th-grade year,” said Berry. “She was obviously a standout, a long, tall basketball player. You could tell she’d been playing her whole life.”

Those two years coaching Christmas at Liberty helped Berry learn a lot about the young guard as a player and noticed a lack of offers finding their way to the Liberty guard.

“I think that some coaches misunderstand her game, they don’t recognize all the things that she does,” Berry explained. “A lot of people talk about the points she scores, but when you look at the stat line after every game and the whole line is filled up. She’s a complete player and a competitor.

“We knew a lot of schools would be looking at her. We weren’t overbearing or pushy, we just hung around and said we’re interested.”

One of Christmas’ teammates was ready to head to Iowa for college ball. After transferring from Valley Vista in 2014, Makayla Enders spent her final two years of high school at Liberty and was ready to head out of state for her next adventure.

“Mak came to Liberty after I left, so I never really met her. Coming into their freshmen year, I got a call from Mak one day and she was interested in ACU. I was surprised. I really didn’t meet her until she came on to campus.”

Meanwhile, one of Makayla’s former teammates at Valley Vista found interest in the new basketball program as well, another guard in Jada Willingham.

“Jada came to my elite prospect camp I hold every August. She came in August of her senior year. She came to camp and right away we said this kid is an athlete. We started recruiting her right out of that camp. I thought we’d be lucky to have any chance to get her.”

Christmas decided to team up with her former high school coach at ACU. Makayla’s plan to go to Iowa fell through and learned of Courtney’s decision to join the Firestorm. Willingham wanted to stay close to home and took up the offer to join the other freshmen at Arizona Christian.

 

The Future, Assembled

Immediately, the freshmen trio became vital parts of the Firestorm, playing in one of the toughest conferences in the NAIA, the Golden State Athletic Conference.

NAIA parental powerhouses in the GSAC such as Westmont College, Vanguard University, and The Masters College, among others relaxed in the national rankings throughout the year.

While Willingham and Christmas weren’t well acquainted with one another, the two did play each other twice their senior years of high school. Liberty defeated Valley Vista on both occasions.

The duo did have one major connection. Enders spent her first two years playing basketball at Valley Vista before transferring to Liberty and becoming teammates with Christmas. The chemistry between the three had a solid foundation before the first game tipped off, and the on-court chemistry only grew.

“I think us all knowing each other, connected really well. We all knew each other,” Christmas said.

The rookie year started with four wins at home but was quickly followed by a three-game skid against two Hawaiian schools, Hawaii Pacific and BYU-Hawaii.

Berry had a philosophy, bring in some of the best schools to Phoenix. Multiple top 25 teams visited town and in the final game of the 2015 calendar year, the third-ranked, Montana State University-Northern came to town. The Firestorm were shut down, only scoring six points in the first quarter and only two in the fourth. No player ended the night in double figures.

The trio witnessed their first major test, falling 49 to 33 to a national powerhouse. But even in the loss, the learning process was only helped by senior star, Madison Austin, ACU’s first NAIA All-American. Austin was an NJCCA National Champion and transferred to ACU after playing one season for Northern Arizona University.

The freshmen watched the veteran lead the team to a 9-6 non-conference schedule. Their first game of the 2016 calendar year featured an exhibition against NCAA DI school, Grand Canyon University. Immediately after that began GSAC play where they would face off in six games against top 25 opponents.

“Everything that was happening to them was happening quick and they jumped in with both feet,” Berry said.

The trio’s first year saw a 13-16 finish nearly clinching their first conference tournament appearance.

“They had their issues and as a staff, we knew how important it was for them to get along,” said Berry. “Over the years we’ve went over their issues, but they’re great kids so they figure it out.”

13 wins were by far the most in ACU women’s basketball history and was the first season to conclude with double-digit victories.

 

Looking Up and Looking Ahead

The trio had become sophomores and by this time took on major leadership roles on the team. The three had also grown each year on the floor.

Enders was full of energy for the team whether it be on the floor or on the bench and commanded the floor as a strong power forward. Willingham could burst to the hoop, leaving defenders stopped in their tracks. Christmas could shoot from anywhere on the floor and learned how to work in the post, forced to defend taller opponents in the paint.

The team instantly put the GSAC on notice in the 2015-2016 season following a conference-opening overtime victory against The Master’s College, the sixteenth ranked school in the NAIA. The Firestorm finished the GSAC season 8-8, but in all eight losses gave the top teams a run for their money.

The victories and progress were enough to earn the Firestorm an experience the program had never seen before – a bid to the GSAC Tournament. The team debuted as a five seed but couldn’t defeat The Masters in the first round.

That small taste of success propelled the trio into their junior years earning an 11-2 non-conference record, scoring over 100 points on three different occasions. With the victories came attention. A team that was at the bottom of the NAIA only a couple years ago had become a force to fear.

In January of 2018, ACU found their way into the NAIA rankings and ended the year in the top half of the conference. An astounding 9-5 GSAC record no only earned the Firestorm a second straight bid to the conference tournament, but it also gave them a bye in the first round. But yet again the team found no luck, falling to San Diego Christian in their first game.

The strides were obvious. The Firestorm would conclude with their first 20-win season in program history, a 14-win difference from only three seasons ago. Christmas, Enders, and Willingham combined for fifty points per game and only suffered nine total losses. Their hard work was noticed by the NAIA and the team was awarded their first-ever bid in the NAIA National Tournament in Billings, MT.

The Firestorm was given a seven seed in the Liston Bracket and faced the two-seeded Central Methodist. ACU led by ten after the first quarter and only trailed by two at the half but was eliminated in their first national tournament game, 98-86.

The trio scored 53 of the Firestorm’s 86 points and faced their fourth and final year after the summer ended.

“I think we all play to each other strengths really well,” explained Enders.

“And I think with us three, knowing where we started from and where we are now, we know where we want to go. We want to make it to nationals and win nationals,” Willingham added.

“We all push each other to the next level. We’ve all made each other so much better in the past four years.” Enders said.

 

The Last Dance

On February 16, 2019, Arizona Christian won their senior day game against Life Hope by a score of 100-50. Almost ironic it would come against a team that looked much like ACU just six years ago playing a national power.

In the 2018-2019 season, the Firestorm went 5-5 against top 25 teams and found themselves in the semifinals of the 2019 GSAC Tournament. The team climbed up the GSAC rankings finishing with a 13-5 record, the third best in the conference.

Arizona Christian won only two GSAC games in the 2014-2015 season and only six games in total. Christmas, Willingham, and Enders joined Berry in 2015 and over the course of four seasons changed the total to 13 GSAC wins and 21 wins over the season.

“I think it was about building the program,” Christmas remarked. “It turned to us to start that process.”

“The three, when they came here, where not the players that they are now, they worked their tails off,” Berry said. “The offseason for those guys, they were serious about getting better, and every year they did get better.”

The Firestorm finished with a better record and better finish in the postseason all four years the trio played. That success brought the team more recognition – yet another national tournament at-large selection.

For the second year in a row, ACU played the role of the underdog, a sixth seed playing third-seeded Oklahoma City. Per the usual, ACU overachieved, nearly taking down the eventual national runner-ups. The now senior trio combined for 56 points, overcoming a 14-point deficit to lead halfway through the final quarter.

The Firestorm never gave OKC a chance to stop and catch their breath, but Oklahoma City ended victorious 75-71. Even with a bittersweet ending, ACU had accomplished a feat that no one in the NAIA could have imagined; except for Odell Berry of course.


The team that witnessed 11 wins in their first season escalated to become admirable foes against any NAIA team they faced.

Christmas led the nation in scoring her senior year and collected her third NAIA All-America selection, this time to First-Team All-American. She set four all-time records in ACU women’s basketball history with 2,354 career points, 785 rebounds, 272 blocks, and 374 steals.

Enders also saw her own recognition becoming an NAIA All-American Honorable Mention for the second year in a row. Enders completed her career with 1,521 career points and 578 rebounds, second in the ACU record book, only behind six-year teammate, Christmas.

Willingham joined the list of accolades becoming the only player on the roster to be a back-to-back NAIA and GSAC Scholar-Athlete. Over the course of her Firestorm career, Willingham recorded 1,268 points, 445 rebounds, and 261 assists.

Two weeks following their second straight trip to the national tournament, Berry announced his retirement. Much like how his career at Liberty ended, he walks away with back-to-back 20-win seasons and programs taken from the bottom to become one of the best around.

After their final regular season, the program saw 68 victories over the past four years and their first visits to the GSAC and NAIA Tournaments. This all coming from a program that won a mere two total games in 2013.

“It’s been a lot of work,” Berry said. “None of my staff are full-time. We’re all here because we love basketball and working with kids and we’re still here because the school’s been supportive of the program. It’s been an opportunity for us to do the thing that we love to do and at the same time watch these kids develop and that’s what’s really been fun.”

The talent trio loved their family business trips to California, Hawaii, and of course Montana, the site of the NAIA’s national tournament.

“I don’t believe in accidents or coincidences, I think He brought us all here together to accomplish what we’ve accomplished,” said Berry.

The senior trio isn’t exactly sure what the future holds for them. Ideas of earning their masters degrees or playing basketball overseas float around. While they’re unsure of the future, they know somewhere they’ll all go for certain,

“Wherever God takes us.”