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Desert Companion

Champions on the rise: Up-and-coming athletes to watch


Photo credit: Sabin Orr

Speed. Strength. Grace. Dedication.
These up-and-coming valley athletes bring their best — both on and off the court


High school sophomore
Stephen Zimmerman
Center, Bishop Gorman H.S.

The Player

Center, sophomore, Bishop Gorman High School boys’ basketball

The buzz

Five-star recruit, 2012 state champion, Co-MVP of Freshman/Sophomore West Coast Camp

The prospects

Zimmerman will have his pick of any school to attend in 2015. Once he’s there? Anything is possible.

He’s tall. He’s very tall. And he knows how to use it

The sky’s the limit for the Gorman 7-footer, who already has scholarship offers from Kansas, Arizona, UCLA and UNLV, just to name a few. Zimmerman didn’t play much last summer because of a knee injury, but by the fall he was back on the court and taking on a larger role for the Gaels than ever before. As a freshman, he was buried behind guys like Shabazz Muhammad, the consensus No. 1 recruit in 2012. Now Zimmerman is in the first year of being a major contributor — and developing into the player that has so many recruiters knocking at his door.

It starts with size; any coach in the country will tell you that you can’t teach 7-foot. The key to success is knowing how to use that size, and that’s where Zimmerman literally stands out. He’s such a defensive presence on the floor that opponents — whether they’re big men in the paint or guards looking to drive to the rim — have to know where Zimmerman is. And, more often than not, they have to adjust their shot because of him. That defensive success makes him valuable on the court no matter how well he’s playing on offense, which can be up and down.

Support comes from

A knock against big men is that they move like big men (read: not well); that Zimmerman doesn’t is what sets him apart from the rest of the exceptionally tall pack. He’s worked very hard on his footwork; it shows when you see him making moves in the post or getting up and down the court. He’s rarely the most graceful guy out there, but he doesn’t put a drag on things when the game speeds up.

The sophomore has a couple more years left in Las Vegas, and in addition to Bishop Gorman’s games you can find him on the courts this summer for the Dream Vision AAU program. This city is a major destination for the summer circuit, especially for one weekend in July. In a couple of years Zimmerman will be easy to spot at his college of choice, perhaps even staying in town to attend UNLV. Seven-footers have a hard time blending in with the crowd, even on a basketball court.

Zimmerman will have his pick of any school to attend in 2015. Once he’s there, anything is possible. His mother, Lori, helps keep Zimmerman grounded, and he’s already shown the requisite work ethic both in training and rehab to succeed at the next level. Wherever he goes, he’s sure to stand out.



High school senior
Jada Brown
Forward, Centennial H.S.

The Player

Forward, senior, Centennial High School girls’ basketball

The buzz

2012 Gatorade Nevada Player of the Year, state champion, two-time Las Vegas Sun Super Seven honoree

The prospects

Thanks to her stellar junior season, Brown heads to the University of Kansas in 2013.

She’s single-minded, tenacious and versatile — and she just plays hard.

When Brown sets her mind to something, she accomplishes it. Take last season. After being honored as one of the region’s top seven players before her junior year, Brown said her personal goal was to win Gatorade Nevada Player of the Year. A few months later, after averaging about 13 points and eight rebounds, Brown had done just that. As a team, Centennial fell short of its goal to repeat as state champs because of a last-second 63-62 loss in the Sunrise Regional semifinals. That’s something Brown and fellow seniors Breanna Workman and Tamera Williams plan to fix this season. All three will go to Division I programs next season, with Workman headed to the University of Arizona and Williams going to New Mexico State. Thanks to her stellar junior season, Brown is heading to the University of Kansas in 2013.

As part of the top recruiting class in the Big 12, Brown will face a lot of pressure as a Jayhawk. It may be particularly challenging because, at 6 feet tall, Brown will be asked to move out more to the perimeter to small forward from her traditional spot at power forward.

That move should be gradual, according to Kansas coach Bonnie Henrickson, allowing the Jayhawks to take advantage of Brown’s tenacity inside while she works on developing her game to include more face-to-the-basket and off-the-dribble abilities. Henrickson said she has no doubt Brown will be able to make the transition because of “how hard she competes.” That desire to get out on the floor will no doubt drive Brown to make the changes necessary to succeed at Kansas.

Brown will go to Lawrence just as another Las Vegas grad, Cheyenne High alum Elijah Johnson, is leaving the men’s basketball team. While most star athletes from this area still end up on the West Coast, this pipeline shows that Las Vegas’ talents are wanted all across the country. Johnson made it to the 2012 national championship game, which sets a high bar for Brown. Of course, it also leaves room for her to get to the game and win it. If Brown sets her mind to it, who’s to say it won’t happen?


Tyrell CrosbyFOOTBALL

High school junior
Tyrell Crosby
Offensive tackle, Green valley H.S.

The Player

Offensive tackle, junior, Green Valley High School football

The buzz

Scholarship offers from Pac-12 and Mountain West schools; 2012 Las Vegas Sun All-City Team; helped Green Valley finish 9-2 last season

The prospects

No matter where he takes the field, Crosby’s going to get a shot to be groomed as a premier offensive lineman for one lucky college.

This rock-solid blocker has some surprisingly nimble moves

Thanks to the 2009 movie “The Blind Side,” a whole lot of otherwise clueless people now know the importance of a good offensive tackle. So do the Green Valley Gators, who have a solid one anchoring their line in senior-to-be Tyrell Crosby. At about 6-foot-6 and 300 pounds, Crosby has the size to get in a defender’s way and the nimble footwork to stay there — that’s because Crosby also plays some basketball. At this stage, he’s got the perfect combination college coaches are looking for, which is why he’s drawn interest from a host of Pac-12 and Mountain West schools, including Oregon, Utah, UNLV and San Diego State. The list of schools showing up to offer Crosby a scholarship will continue to grow as he does, because — make no mistake — he’s still got room to get bigger, faster and stronger.

Crosby’s 40-yard dash time ranges from 4.9 to 5.3 seconds while his shuttle run — a good test of speed and agility — is a hair over five seconds. Those are really good times for a young man at his size; the goal will be to maintain those figures while adding strength and weight. That process goes to another level in college, where Crosby will have even more coaches to help build and mold him into the ideal lineman.

Want to catch him in action? The senior-to-be can be found on football fields around the valley this fall, when Green Valley will look to build off its 9-2 record and advance even further in postseason play. After that, the destination is still up in the air, though it’s likely you won’t hear from Crosby for a couple of years. It’s hard for any freshman to step onto a college football field and contribute right away, especially on the offensive line, where size is such a factor. Give him time, though. Crosby has shown considerable promise — and don’t be surprised if you hear his name mentioned on a college football broadcast a few years down the road.

Thanks to his work in helping Green Valley finish with a 9-2 record last season, Crosby has a nice selection of destinations. The best of the bunch so far, and maybe even the best fit for Crosby, is the University of Oregon. The Ducks run a spread offense that puts up points at a prodigious pace at the Division I level. Green Valley also runs a spread, so the learning curve for Crosby may be more manageable there than other destinations. But no matter where he takes the field, Crosby’s going to get a shot to be groomed as one of that school’s premier offensive linemen.


Lucia BattaTENNIS

College junior
Lucia Batta
Tennis Player, UNLV

The Player

Tennis player, junior, UNLV women's tennis

The buzz

2012 Mountain West Player of the Year, 2012 NCAA Singles Championships qualifier, 2011 Mountain West Freshman of the Year, 2011 ITA Regional Freshman of the Year

The prospects

The path to the pros in tennis is much less clear than in basketball and football. Even though she’s a tier below the college game’s elite players, Batta has time to get there.

This resourceful athlete triumphed over an injury with ingenuity and inspiration

Any conversation about the best female tennis players on the West Coast has to include Batta, the reigning Mountain West Player of the Year for UNLV.

The Budapest native excelled from the moment she stepped on the courts in Las Vegas. Only a couple years before, it was uncertain she’d be able to do any of this. Batta suffered a torn ligament in her right, dominant wrist, and only found out about it after months of playing through the pain. When Batta got back on the court, she realized she could no longer create sufficient power on her forehand — a swinging stroke with her right arm — because of the weakness in her wrist. To compensate, Batta tried something unusual: She started hitting forehands with both her left and right hands on the racket. The extra footwork necessary to cover enough ground to hit that shot with two hands instead of one is Batta’s weakness, but the power she regained as a result is the reason she’s excelling. It’s not the way you would teach someone how to play, Rebels Coach Kevin Cory has said, but Batta makes it work for her.

You can see it for yourself. UNLV hosts six events in March and another two the weekend of April 13 at the Frank and Vicki Fertitta Tennis Complex, located on UNLV’s campus near the football practice fields and Earl E. Wilson Baseball Stadium. Plus, Batta has her entire senior season of fall and spring events coming in 2013-14.

Catch her while you can, though. The path to the pro circuit, should she choose to pursue it, is far from a certain thing in women’s tennis, and once there only the top events and players get much air time. Do yourself a favor and go relax in the stands at one of the Rebels’ home events, because it’s difficult to comprehend just how much skill and precision a player of Batta’s level possesses until you see it up close.

Batta is one of two Rebels from Budapest on the current roster, and both are the latest in line of Hungarian players to find success in the desert. What she’ll do beyond UNLV is tough to predict, because the path to the pros in tennis is much less clear than in basketball and football. What is clear: Batta will have a chance to go that route, should she choose to take it. Coming into the heart of her junior season, Batta still stood on a tier below the college game’s elite players, but she has time to get there. And she’s already proved that she’ll try anything to succeed — including an unusual shot that may just become her signature.


Kevin PennerGOLF

College senior
Kevin Penner
Golfer, UNLV

The Player

Golfer, senior, UNLV men's golf

The buzz

2013 Ben Hogan Award watch list, 2012 Honorable Mention All-America, two-time All-Mountain West, three career individual victories

The prospects

Penner may have a shot at a spot on the PGA tour — even though the route is tougher than it used to be, requiring more work on the Tour and success in a three-tournament series.

He makes it look easy — but works hard at inspiring others

The best golfers, the ones you watch from the couch on a Sunday afternoon, make it look so easy. Whether it’s an almost unnoticeable change in their swing that puts the requisite backspin on a ball or the perfect read on a long putt, great golfers take an activity we in the desert enjoy year-round and turn it into an art form.

Kevin Penner is one of those golfers — and soon enough, he could be among that group you watch on TV, playing for a tournament title on Sundays.

Penner, a Sammamish, Wash., native, is a senior at UNLV and the top golfer in the Mountain West. In the Rebels’ fall season, Penner played four of the five tournaments, finished top 10 in each and came out with a 71.09 scoring average per round, which led both the team and the league.

As a junior last season, Penner had seven top 10s, including two victories. His 71.61 scoring average was the 10th best in school history, and that only set the table for his dramatic July victory at the Sahalee Players Championship in his hometown. Penner survived a three-way, sudden-death playoff to win the major amateur championship event just two weeks after receiving Honorable Mention All-America recognition for his junior season.

The future? Penner has a chance to become just the second Ben Hogan Award winner this season, following fellow Washington native Ryan Moore (2005). Maybe more important for the program and Las Vegas Golf Hall of Fame coach Dwaine Knight is that there are a lot of young Rebels to learn from Penner this season, including a trio of locals.

Arbor View High grad Zane Thomas and Coronado High grads AJ McInerney and Kenden Slattery are all freshmen on this year’s team. Just like practicing against great players every day in sports like basketball and football can make you better, so too can competing with and against someone like Penner on the links, day in and day out. The saying goes, “Iron sharpens iron,” and so too do irons, putters and drivers.

After UNLV’s home event at Southern Highlands Golf Club the second weekend of March, Penner will wrap up his collegiate career in places like Arizona and Texas before a potential date with the NCAA Championship in Atlanta at the end of May. Once he’s done as a Rebel, Penner will try to take his swing to the PGA Tour, though the route just got tougher. Players used to be able to earn their PGA Tour cards through Qualifying School, but that system ended in 2012. Now it will take more work on the Tour (the equivalent of the NBA D-League) and success in a three-tournament series. That may sound daunting, but remember, the best golfers always make it look easy.