By Joseph Staszewski
Jasmine Nwajei fully accepted and thrived amid the high expectations placed on her as a freshman at Wagner College.
The former Mary Louis star and Rockaway Park native was asked to be the face of the program, its best player and leader right away. There were bumps along the way, but Nwajei is all of the above now heading into her sophomore campaign.
“I’m extremely comfortable now because when I came in as a freshman, I was kind of put to the test,” she said. “I had to just take the lead and act like a vet.”
People took notice.
Nwajei was the only underclassman voted by the coaches to the Preseason All-NEC team. She is the conference’s top returning scorer, averaging 21.9 point per game last season on her way to being named the conference’s Rookie of the Year. Nwajei also led the NEC in assists during conference games at 5.5 per contest. The way she handled herself in the role of point guard as a freshman impressed Seahawks coach Lisa Cermignano.
“You have to learn everything,” she said. “You have to step up and do everything. There is a lot more pressure. It’s the hardest position to come into in college basketball.”
Doing so meant Nwajei not only had to adjust to how her teammates played but them to her. Wagner got off to slow start during a difficult non-league schedule, but ended up going 8-10 in conference play and reaching the semifinals of the NEC Tournament. The Seahawks won just two NEC games the year before.
The wins came as the young team jelled. Wagner senior center Ugo Nwaigwe said she had never played with a point guard like Nwajei, who was needed to score first and also make those around her better. Gradually, it all clicked.
“I always had to be ready because I never knew when she was going to give me a (pass), but it became a little duo that we had toward the end of the season,” Nwaigwe said.
Wagner returning the bulk of its roster will allow that continuity to continue. Nwajei believes her improved jump shot will also make her tougher to guard.
It added up to the Seahawks being picked by the coaches to finish fourth in the NEC this year, but Nwajei has higher hopes, while happy to see the program is earning some respect.
“I don’t feel like they are still hearing us,” she said. “That is just a warning to the rest of the teams in the conference that we are coming for them. I feel like that was ranked kind of low. I have higher expectations for my team this year.”
If anyone knows about handling them and succeeding in them it is Nwajei. She is just fine with all of it.
“I enjoy the role,” she said. “It’s a lot of pressure, but I don’t mind. I’m always up for the challenge.”