Just over a year ago, SFA guard Zya Nugent was standing on the stage at the Orleans Arena. First-year commissioner Brian Thornton was handing Nugent the trophy for Tournament MVP.
The junior guard from Denison, Texas just put up 20 points and 12 rebounds to lead SFA to a WAC Championship and trip to the NCAA Tournament.
In two games at WAC Vegas, Nugent averaged 21.0 points and 8.5 rebounds. There was no doubt who was the tournament MVP.
Fast forward five months.
Things changed in a hurry as the Ladyjacks prepared to defend their title.
Hustling back to try and block a shot by a teammate at the Loddi Naymola Basketball Performance Center, Nugent’s season ended in the blink of an eye.
While trying to block the shot attempt, Nugent’s body went one way; her lower leg went another way.
The 2022-23 season was over for the WAC Tournament MVP and team leader of the Ladyjacks.
Nugent tore her LCL, MCL, ACL and had a lateral meniscus tear.
“They made me a new bone in my knee,” Nugent said following shootaround on a Sunday at The Sawmill.
It has been six months since Nugent suffered the first serious injury of her athletic career.
In that time, at least at the beginning, it was a difficult situation to process.
“Heartbreaking,” Nugent said. “It was kind of like something that I’m very passionate about, been playing since I was three, and it was taken from me. Mentally it was just kind of hard for me at the beginning. I was just drained, didn’t want to do, and was just trying to figure out my life.”
“I think she struggled through it early, though,” SFA head coach Mark Kellogg said. “It was a battle and a grind for her for a long time to get through it. She had never been through that.”
During the time after the injury, it took time for Nugent to figure out what she wanted to do.
“She was in a rough time,” Kellogg said. “It was rough for her. It wasn’t like a month. I’m talking like multiple months where she struggled. Struggled to get up to go to therapy, struggled to get up to go to class, struggled to be at practice when she didn’t have a niche.”
What else was there to do during the time? Nugent turned to social media. There was also some DJ’ing she was doing. Puzzles. Reading. Rewatching games and seeing herself on the floor.
“Just kind of little things like that. Trying to find something to fill in those times when I was laying in bed after the injury. I had a lot of time so it’s like when you have a lot of time, what can you do?
TikTok. YouTube. Different stuff like that kept Nugent afloat.
However, talks with her head coach were the turning point in figuring out what to do next.
“I sat down with coach and we kind of came to meet in the middle of what I can do,” Nugent said. “That’s when I became a player-coach to get me more involved, see the process, and be more involved in practice.”
“There have been a lot of talks,” Kellogg said. “We had to do that multiple times … We were trying for a long time to find a niche for her, find something she was passionate about.”
It was a passion to be on the floor, hitting jumpers, free throws and leading a team to a win.
“This is her time of year,” Kellogg said. “This is what she lives for as a player. A lot of us do even as coaches and competitors. This is the best time. I think she’s right at home now and wishing she was out there.”
With her experience, energy and contagious smile, Nugent is a perfect fit as a player-coach. It gives her an opportunity to see things from the other side, help teammates, and at times blow a whistle and let her teammates know she was in charge.
“It’s fun for me,” Nugent said. “You get to see what they see, what they’ve been seeing. I feel like that will push my game to another level when I come back next year. It’s kind of fun. I was a ref at one point and had the whistle. It was kind of fun to just get the reaction of the players, like, ‘oh yeah, you know, I got the whistle so I’m in charge.’ It’s just a fun experience.
Nugent’s head coach loves having her on the bench. The passion and the energy. It’s what makes his team better.
“She’s energy,” Kellogg said. “If you ever see her on the bench, she is into it. I mean she just has passion. Zya has passion. She has passion about this game, whether she’s playing or now “coaching”. She still has that piece of it.”
There is no set timetable for Nugent’s return to full contact. At the current time, free throws, working on her shot, refining her ball handling skills are the current game plan for the WAC Tournament MVP.
“I’m still a part of something,” Nugent says with a smile on her face. “That should be big for anybody. That’s how I keep going. My team, coaches, and family are all very supportive during this time. At the end of the day, I’m still here on the team and can still come back.”
For her head coach, hopefully the time as a coach, working on those fundamentals that sometimes get lost, will make Nugent even better when she comes back.
“I think we’re on the right track. I think she’s going to get out of the year what she needed to. It just took us a while to get there.”
Nugent will be on the bench with her clipboard at WAC Vegas as the Ladyjacks look to defend title beginning Wednesday night at the Orleans Arena.