CHEYENNE – When Ja’Kia Wells first stepped foot in the Capital City, she was taken aback.
It was hard to breathe, she thought at first.
“The elevation was crazy,” the Laramie County Community College sophomore said with a laugh.
Call it a culture shock. After all, coming to Cheyenne (elevation: 6,063 feet) from Mesquite, Texas (elevation: 495 feet) will do that to you.
Another thing she had trouble wrapping her mind around was, go figure, the weather.
“Absolutely not,” Wells said when asked if she was a fan of the wildly unpredictable climate. “The weather is ridiculous down here, and the wind is crazy. I don’t like it at all.”
Growing up in dry heat most of the year, where average low temperatures won’t dip below 36 degrees, snow also was something Wells wasn’t used to. She recalled seeing it snow one other time in her life: She was 9 years old and in the fourth grade. That’s it.
“And then I see snow in August, and I’m like, ‘Wow!’” she said.
The elevation and climate might be new to Wells, but the game of basketball is far from it.
She starred for Mesquite High, and her versatility and pure athleticism immediately caught the eye of Golden Eagles coach Brian Ortmeier, who doesn’t consider the state of Texas a primary recruiting hotspot. Once he watched game film of Wells’ prep career, he couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
“She jumped off the video as somebody that was a really talented player,” the coach said. “There’s a couple plays where she is playing in their press and … they’re running a 2-2-1, and she is hanging back toward half court, and she can shoot gaps, and she was just making some really great steals and could close that space really quick.”
Ortmeier envisioned Wells’ style of play translating to his program.
Wells, a guard/forward, had some catching up to do and adjusting as a freshman last season. That learning curve was evident over the first half of the season, where Wells was a staple off the bench. During two separate games this past January, Wells posted 18 points off the bench to help LCCC to wins over Northwest and Central Wyoming, respectively.
She kept working, training, learning.
“You have to experience it, you have to keep doing it in order to get accustomed to it, and that’s what I had to do,” Wells said of playing college basketball.
When the Eagles were in the midst of a two-game losing streak, Wells was inserted into the lineup Feb. 9 at Sheridan. She played 19 minutes that game – a loss that pushed the Eagles’ skid to three.
But Wells combined for 43 points over her next two starts, including a win Feb. 13 at Western Wyoming to snap her team’s losing streak. She then registered her first double-double – 17 points, 11 rebounds in a win at Central Wyoming on Feb. 23.
“For us, last year she was a good leader, especially in the second half of the year, once we hit conference play,” Ortmeier said. “If you go through the box scores, she is a player that can average a double-double, and she did that playing against some 6-1, 6-2, 6-3 post players, and obviously playing post at her size is a little undersized. But, again, she is a good tone setter for us and a player that can really lead us this season.”
Wells ended up starting seven games her freshman season. She averaged 7.5 points per game and shot 37.9% from beyond the arc, while averaging 6.5 rebounds per game to tie sophomore guard Karli O’Brien for the team lead.
“My first time ever playing in a college game, I felt like I competed with everybody I competed against,” Wells said. “I worked my hardest against the (opposition), even though they were huge mismatches with me and some of the post players from other teams. But I feel like I matched up quite well. I played great defense, I helped my team out in major ways, and I just did what I had to do.”
This season will be different. Starting with today’s 5:30 p.m. opener at McCook Community College, Wells has been tasked with stepping up into a leadership position. After looking to sophomore forward Kyleigh Milan last season, Wells plans to return the favor to the freshman class this season.
“(I’m looking forward to) leading my team, being a positive role model,” she said. “(Milan) was somewhat of a role model to me because she worked hard, but I learned to outwork everybody, push my teammates, just do what I can to make my team better and also working on myself.”