Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Iona's Damika Martinez Building Superlative Career

Sometimes we don't appreciate what's happening right before our eyes.

Far too often we don't recognize superlative play, relative greatness, except with hindsight.

But, these days, it shouldn't be difficult to understand we're watching one of the most-outstanding individual careers a player has ever crafted in the MAAC.

That would be the play of Iona's junior guard Damika Martinez, now 11 games into her junior year for the Gaels' women's basketball team.

All Martinez did in her first two seasons was to lead the conference in scoring both years, becoming the first freshman to ever top the league's scoring chart as a freshman and, then, the first to do it her first two years on the college level.

She went over 1,000 points for her career late in her sophomore season, a mark usually reached by standouts in their senior years.

After averaging 16.0 and 18.1 points per game in her first two seasons, respectively, she has exploded this season, taking her achievements to the national level.

She is currently averaging 26.1 points per game, the third-best average nationally on the Division I level.

Her career total of 1,356 is already sixth on Iona's all-time list, and she's likely to threaten program leader Maggie Timoney's 1,849 career points near the end of this season.

After that, if all continues to go well, comes an assault on the MAAC's all-time leader board for career points next season.

If Martinez continues to average in the mid-20's per game through the rest of her career, she will almost assuredly surpass the all-time career total of 2,467 currently held by Loyola's 1995 graduate Patty Stoffey.

All of that is happening right now, and is being done by a player's whose physical dimensions wouldn't necessarily lend themselves to those type of scoring heights.

Stoffey and Rachele Fitz, the MAAC's top two all-time career scoring leaders, were both 6-foot-1 forwards.

Martinez is a slender 5-7 guard, yet she has only missed one game due to a minor injury thus far in her time at Iona.

"I guess it's a gift," said Martinez, after a recent Iona victory. "Some players are gifted with the ability to do certain things, whether it's rebounding or blocking shots. I guess I have the gift of being able to score."

She does it with both a superlative long-range shot (32-of-67, a .478 percentage) thus far this year, but with a quickness that enables her to create either space to squeeze off a mid-range shot, or to get to the basket.

And, if not as if all Martinez does is shoot the ball. She's also a clever passer, often drawing defenders to her and dishing off to teammates. She's currently averaging 2.1 assists per contest this season.

Martinez's "gift" was evident far before she came to Iona. She averaged 26 points per game as a senior at Oliver H. Platt High School in Connecticut, and finished with 1,857 career points over her career there.

But, she's the first to admit her game has continued to develop since then.

"My game, compared last year to this year, has gotten a lot better," she said. "One thing is that, in the past, defense could slow me down by making me go to my left. I worked on that a lot in the off-season, and, now, I'm comfortable with the ball going let."

She's comfortable doing a lot of things on the court, and the type of improvement she's made to reach her current comfort level doesn't come without some good old fashioned hard work.

This past summer she was a member of the Puerto Rico national team, and said that experienced was an eye-opener.

"Ig gives you a chance to see what you have to do to reach that level," she said. "You get to see what you need to do to stay in top condition and what you need to do to improve your game."

Martinez also had a mentor, of sorts, well versed in the fine art of hardwood hard work in the form of Momo Jones, the MAAC's men's scoring leader last season.

"He and I would get up at 5 a.m. a lot of days and be in the gym not long after that putting up shots," Martinez said.

Those early morning workout sessions are a thing of the past, with Jones having finished up his Iona eligibility. But, they're often replaced by late-night trips to the school's Mulcahy Gymnasium  these days.

"There are a lot of nights I go over there with Joy Adams (Iona's standout sophomore forward) to work on our game," she said. "A lot of nights we go into the gym at midnight. I don't have a key, but the security guys let us in."

It all helps, and none of it has come at the cost of winning.

The 2011-12 Iona team finished 13-18 in Martinez' freshman year but lost that year's best player, Kristina Ford, to an early season injury for seven games and she never truly returned to form.

Last year the program finished 20-13 and advanced to the WNIT post-season event. This year Iona is off to a 9-2 start overall.

Martinez hopes that it's all part of her achieving some very lofty goals.

"As a team we want to get to the NCAA tournament," she said. "As an individual I want to be a three-time MAAC Player of the Year winner (she won that award as a sophomore last season), and to be the first player in league history to lead the league in scoring for four years."

Admirable goals, and high-reaching ones, too.

But, not out of the realm of possibility, not for a diminutive guard whose career to date has not only far exceeded most expectations but is on course to be the greatest statistical career ever by a women's player in the MAAC.

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