April 26, 2016

Yee-Stephens staying coastal

Kevin McCarthy

photo of Kaijee Yee-Stephens

6-foot-2, 190 pound Kaijae Yee-Stephens, the MVP of the Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League this season, enjoyed the recruitment process so much that he went through it twice. Actually no, for savoring is not a description often associated with the up-and-down slog for a college athletic scholarship. He did endure a double dip after his original decision blew up when the business of college basketball intervened but that development now has him close to the sand and shore and in a higher level basketball conference.

He recently signed with Pepperdine of the West Coast Conference, home of such vaunted programs as St. Mary's, Gonzaga and BYU. This after putting his name on a letter-of-intent back in November to play for Southern Utah University Coach Nick Robinson. But Robinson was let go in early March and with that coach/player relationship no longer an option, Yee-Stephens eventually made the decision to re-open his recruitment.

About that original commitment to a Big Sky Conference member, Yee-Stephens said, "You want to surround yourself with good people and I had a strong relationship with Coach Robinson and his staff. That's why I chose to go there." The power of a coach-player bond is often underestimated in the world of recruiting yet that was the clincher in his initial decision.

Once back on the market, Pepperdine and San Jose State University swooped in and, after visits to both schools, it was the lure of Malibu that won out.

As a free agent once again, "I was kind of worried," Yee-Stephens recalled. But add up a 4.1 grade point average, a college-ready body and an unmatched workout ethic to this authentic student-athlete and it's a bit bewildering that he should have experienced any concern at all. But factor in the question of "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" After all, Yee-Stephens played in what isn't considered a fertile recruiting territory, an area little visited by college coaches. His post regular season production was apparently critically important.

For someone who filled up the stat sheets all season, Yee-Stephens saved his best for last. In the final four Cardinal matchups, all playoff/tournament contests, he totaled 26 points in a pairing against 25-3 St. Francis. 29 versus 28-5 Menlo-Atherton, 45 in a matchup win over 25-6 Arcata plus 40 in a face-off with 26-7 Central Catholic.

Still, there was the possibility Yee-Stephens would have to accept that his next opportunity might be lower down on the level of D1 college basketball situations or even be the junior college level for a year.

"Sometimes you do drop lower," he acknowledged. But that wasn't the case here.

Here's another aspect to Yee-Stephens that made a vivid impression. When he recently entered the Santa Cruz High gymnasium to display his talents in front of some college coaches, he quickly began a workout of his own, prior to the officially scheduled one. That eagerness and ambition blew away those present, cementing in their minds that Yee-Stephens was a recruit with initiative, character and a love for the game.

Asked what he will bring to the Wave, Yee-Stephens offered, "some shooting coming off screens and off the dribble, ballhandling and looking to make my teammates better."

He'll be joining a large class of Wave recruits that consists of five others -- four prepsters plus a 6-foot-7 transfer from Utah. The high school contingent includes a 5-foot-10 guard and a 6-foot-5 guard as well as 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-9 forwards.

Yee-Stephens provided this recruiting advice to those still in high school: "make sure you answer coaches calls, seek out all options, find a good fit and constantly work on your game so you don't lose your scholarship."

He also wished to acknowledge those who immensely guided and aided him during his hoops journey to date, saying thanks to "Ayinde Ubaka and Kelvin "KP' Potts (of Team Arsenal), Bob Bramlett (of the West Valley Basketball Club) and Lawan Milhouse (his Santa Cruz High coach). Plus, my father and my mother. Everyone was an important part of Team Kaijae." His father Reggie and mother Desiree were critical with the recruiting process and in his academic achievements respectively.

He's excited to be a Wave and will head down south in July.

"It's definitely a relief."