Pima Community College sports

Community comes together in Pima’s celebration of Indigenous people

Pima Community College athletics is nicknamed the Aztecs, which is a prideful tribute to Native Americans in this area because a link exists between the Mesoamerican culture of Mexico and Central America and the ancient civilizations of the Southwest, particularly the Hohokam. 

In this region of the Tohono O’odham nation — descendants of the oldest known Native American culture of the area, the Hohokam — it is fitting that Pima celebrates the importance of Indigenous people in our community.

Pima coach Todd Holthaus was instrumental in the development of Saturday’s “In Honor of Indigenous People Game” festivities scheduled in coordination with the Aztecs’ game with Arizona Christian’s junior varsity team at Pima West Gym.

“What inspired me was the fact that over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of coaching a number of Native American young ladies,” Holthaus said after the 85-71 win in front of a near-capacity crowd. “I’ve admired their strength, their ability to play basketball. The fact that they always want to get an education and go back and help their people, I’ve always held that dear to my heart.

“That’s amazing when you want to give back.”

The best player in Pima’s history is J.J. Nakai, of the Navajo nation, who holds the program’s record of 1,397 points and 442 assists.

Holthaus symbolically started a lineup comprising only of Native Americans on Saturday night — guard Camryn Nockedeneh (Navajo), wing player Aiona Johnson (Navajo), forward Matehya Aberle (Navajo), forward Torrance Begay (Navajo) and guard Jaden Leslie (Apache/Hopi).

“It happened that we have five Native American kids on our team this year, so I just started think about last spring to design Native American uniforms with the colors to represent the different aspects of the Native American life,” Holthaus said. “We just kind of steamrolled it and it became a prayer with the national anthem with dancers … I’m just proud that it turned out the way it did and I’m glad that so many people were honored by it because that’s the most important part.”

The festivities included David Aberle (Matehya’s brother) offering the Navajo prayer, Kylee Toehe singing the Native American national anthem, Steve Pratt performing the Navajo/Osage dance, the Santa Rosa Traditional Dancers doing a performance symbolic of the Tohono O’odham culture, a Native American friendship ring dance that included Holthaus and his coaching staff and players, and a tribute to guest of honors Greta Naranjo and Paige Shirley.

Naranjo, the head coach of Tucson’s junior varsity girls team, is a former Arizona standout who coached at Pima. She is from McNary, which is in the Fort Apache Indian Reservation.

Shirley is from the Navajo nation who played for Pima’s 2010-11 team that was the national runner-up.

The game was streamed live so fans and families of many of the players in the Show Low area can observe the festivities.

Matehya Aberle, who is from Holbrook in Navajo County, is the niece of former Arizona walk-on guard Cliff Johns — a member of the Wildcats’ 1992-93 team that won a Pac-10 championship.

Matehya, a 6-foot-1 freshman forward destined to play for a four-year school, mentioned of the evening honoring Indigenous people: “It holds a special place in my heart — hearing my people in the crowd, knowing people are honored tonight and remembered is a huge goal in life that we want to achieve, and being able to represent our ancestors and relatives across the nation.”

Johns was on hand, making the trip from where he lives in Gallup, N.M., to watch his niece play and celebrate the evening honoring Indigenous people. His son Quinn A’ta’zhoon is a freshman with Brian Peabody’s team at Pima.

Another son, Khohanon, is a Class of 2022 prospect in Gallup who plays for his dad’s AAU team, North Wind Basketball — a team showcasing Native Indigenous players.

“She’s coming around,” Johns said of Matehya, whose mom Elisha Johns-Aberle played at San Diego State. “I think with the coaching staff here it’s been really good for her.”

Holthaus’ staff includes legendary Jim Rosborough, who was Lute Olson’s long-time assistant a Arizona.

It was Rosborough who discovered Johns during a rec-league game at Arizona in 1992. Rosborough was invited to speak at a Native American Health Fair event at the Arizona Recreation Center and Johns happened to catch his eye with his perimeter shooting and playmaking ability.

Johns was given a note by a rec staff member from Rosborough to give him a call. Johns called Rosborough on a pay phone. He was invited to meet the team and take part in a workout. Olson invited him to be walk-on shortly thereafter.

Johns gave Rosborough another meaningful call earlier this year — to talk about his Matehya’s ability.

“Coach Ros, I called him up and told him, ‘You need to take a look at this girl. She’s my niece. Take a look at her,'” Johns said. “Quinn, my son, with the men’s program here, got to know Ros a little more. Ros was kind of recruiting. We did introduce her to him and that’s how it started.

“Everything (was) coming full circle with our family. My mom and dad being able to see Coach Ros again was really a good blessing. Overall, I think she’s adjusted well. Her roles and responsibilities on the court and also what’s entailed to be at a college and what to expect … they’re working on her and pushing her and I’m seeing it on the court.”

Matehya went 5 for 9 from the field and had 11 points in Pima’s victory.

Sophomore Melissa Simmons led the Aztecs with a team-high 15 points to go along with six rebounds.

Four sophomores with Southern Arizona ties were also significant contributors:

Nikya Orange (Tanque Verde graduate) finished with a double-double of 13 points and 16 rebounds; which included seven offensive boards.

Angel Addleman (Palo Verde) went 5 for 9 from the field and finished with 12 points.

Luisayde Chavez (Rio Rico) also added 11 points and six assists.

Jaslyn Booker (Buena) had nine points and nine rebounds.

Matehya Aberle

Cliff Johns


ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District

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