‘A Longhorn For Life’
(CEDAR HILL, TEXAS) Ashlaa Zuniga won a state championship as an assistant coach and nearly went to the NCAA Final Four as a player, but there was nothing quite like the morning of November 16, 2019 when she faced her alma mater as an opposing head coach for the first time.
Zuniga, a Cedar Hill High School Class of 2005 Graduate, became the head girls basketball coach at Waxahachie in 2019.
“For anyone who graduated from Cedar Hill or played sports there, you’re a Longhorn for life,” Zuniga said. “But I am a competitive person, and I wanted to win to keep playing in the tournament.”
Zuniga’s WHS team was competitive in a 48-40 loss to a Cedar Hill squad that reached the State Quarterfinals later that season.
Those feelings were amplified on the evening of January 7, 2020 when Zuniga visited David Milson Gymnasium as an opponent for the first time.
“I got overwhelmed with a sense of emotion,” Zuniga said. “I was thinking about being back in that gym and how blessed I was to have the opportunity. When I accepted the Waxahachie job, I knew they were in the same district as Cedar Hill, and that played a factor in me taking the job.”
Coaching The Waxahachie Lady Indians
Zuniga is 0-4 against the Lady Longhorns thus far, but it is a game that she always circles on the calendar. The teams only met once this season, as Waxahachie’s trip to Cedar Hill in late January was canceled due to COVID-19.
“It’s not just another game – it’s Cedar Hill,” Zuniga said. “Cedar Hill is near and dear to my heart.”
Zuniga’s affinity for Longhorn Nation isn’t surprising. She still lives in Cedar Hill (until her new home in Waxahachie is complete this spring). Both Zuniga and her two siblings attended Plummer Elementary (where their mother taught), Permenter Middle School and Cedar Hill High School from Kindergarten through graduation.
Zuniga has made history at Waxahachie as the first Female African American head coach.
“I always tell people ‘just because it’s never happened before doesn’t mean it always has to stay that way,” Zuniga said.
Zuniga said she was “intrigued” by the opportunity to coach in a high school with one sports-playing high school – similar to Cedar Hill.
“It reminded me of Cedar Hill in the way that the community rallies behind their teams,” Zuniga said.
Zuniga was succeeded by Lesli Priebe, who won 523 career games, including a Class 4A State Championship in 2006.
Adding to the challenge is competing in District 6A-11, which includes the past two state champions – DeSoto (2021), Duncanville (2020), a Cedar Hill team that’s reached at least the Regional Quarterfinals for the past seven seasons and a Mansfield team that was ranked in the Top 25 this year.
Along the way, Zuniga has earned the respect of her peers, including Cedar Hill head coach Nicole Collins.
“I think she has done a good job of getting her girls to play hard,” Collins said. “We definitely have to be ready to play when we play Waxahachie.”
FROM A LONGHORN TO AN AGGIE
When Zuniga played seventh grade basketball at Permenter, her head coach was Barbara Brown-McCoy, a local women’s basketball legend. Brown-McCoy was part of the 1980 USA Olympic Women’s Basketball Team that never competed due to the 1980 Olympic Boycott.
In eighth grade, Zuniga’s coach was Melanie Benjamin, current CHISD Director of Athletics.
When she arrived at Cedar Hill High School in 2001, the head coach was Jim Murphy, who had guided the Lady Longhorns to the State Final Four just a few years earlier.
Zuniga is grateful for Murphy’s foresight, which allowed her to gain valuable experience at the Junior Varsity level in 2001-2002.
“Coach Murphy said ‘You can be on varsity, but you won’t play and you probably won’t get better, or you can play on JV and get better, so you can contribute on varsity as a sophomore.”
That’s exactly what happened, although Amy Tennison succeeded Murphy as the head coach in 2002-2003.
Zuniga started as a sophomore forward, as Cedar Hill advanced to the Area Round of the playoffs.
What She Learned As a Player
Tennison coached Zuniga for three years in high school and later, as an assistant coach at Texas A&M. They’ve faced one another as head coaches twice, splitting the two games.
“Ashlaa is a very talented young lady with a strong mindset,” said Tennison, who is currently the head coach at Midlothian. “Everything she has accomplished has been because of her work ethic and being committed to her best, and that is true now for the kids she coaches. She is always working to raise their level.”
Zuniga was ranked 64th in a senior class of approximately 464 students. She received scholarship offers from universities throughout the country.
Academics was a key factor in her decision so she chose Texas A&M where she played for the legendary Gary Blair, a Dallas native who coached Brown-McCoy at South Oak Cliff.
“Coach Blair is a family oriented coach, which is huge because you don’t come by that often in the college world,” Zuniga said. “He was big about players being able to play in front of their hometowns. I appreciate a lot of things he did for us. We didn’t understand that he didn’t have to do those things.”
On April Fool’s Day 2008 in Oklahoma City, the Aggies weren’t joking around with Tennessee in the Elite Eight, in Zuniga’s Senior Season.
Although the Lady Vols edged A&M, 53-45 and went on to win the NCAA Championship that season, it set the foundation for the Aggies.
“If we would have won that game, we definitely could have won the championship in 2008,” Zuniga said.
The freshmen on that 2008 A&M Team, including Sydney Colson, would lead the Aggies to the program’s first-ever NCAA Championship as seniors in 2011.
“The Tennessee loss set the foundation and the hunger for those freshmen,” Zuniga said.
Another highlight at A&M was an exhibition game against the 2008 Olympic Team during which Zuniga received a compliment from Lisa Leslie.
Zuniga had opportunities to play professionally, but she couldn’t bear being away from her family for three quarters of the year. They had attended all of her home games and many of the road contests over the years.
A COACHING JOURNEY
It wasn’t until later in her career at A&M that Zuniga decided she wanted to pursue a career in education as a teacher/coach.
After earning a degree in Agricultural Leadership and Education, Zuniga accepted a position as an assistant coach at Anderson-Shiro, which then competed in Class 2A. The school, located in rural Grimes County is about 30 minutes east of the A&M campus in College Station.
Zuniga was a 21-year-old teaching assistant in 2008-2009, and she was an assistant coach in three sports – basketball, volleyball and softball.
“I loved it there, I learned a lot about patience, and I decided that I wanted to focus on basketball,” Zuniga said.
While searching for a job online the following offseason, Zuniga found a girls basketball opening at a Class 5A school (at the time the highest classification in Texas) in the Houston suburbs, located just over an hour south of the A&M campus.
It was Cypress-Fairbanks High School – known to nearly everyone as Cy-Fair. They are the original high school in what is now one of the largest school districts in the state.
They were less than two years removed from a state championship, and their top player was the best high school girls basketball player in the United States, Chiney Ogwumike, who now plays for the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks. Ogwumike, a Stanford Graduate, became the first Black woman to host a national radio show for ESPN.
The Lady Bobcats’ second best player was Cassie Peoples, who went on to play for Texas and Florida before becoming a successful Commercial Real Estate agent in San Antonio.
Cy-Fair’s head coach was (and still is) Ann Roubique, who just completed her 31st season with the program.
“At 22 years old, you don’t understand the magnitude of those kind of players,” Zuniga said. “Not only were they phenomenal athletes, they were some of the most respectful young ladies. They didn’t care about how many points they scored. They just wanted to win.”
During Zuniga’s first season on the staff, Cy-Fair won the 5A State Championship in convincing fashion in the Championship Game over fellow Houston area opponent, Fort Bend Hightower.
But it was the state semifinal game in Austin that tugged at Zuniga’s heartstrings. The Lady Bobcats edged Cedar Hill, 54-50, on the afternoon on March 4, 2010.
“It was stressful,” Zuniga said. “On one hand, you have your high school alma mater. We hadn’t been to state in a little over a decade. My sister was a Cedar Hill scholar at the time. But then you’re there with your time, trying to get them to win. That game was the (actual) championship game, right there.”
“I can’t put into words what winning a state championship means. It’s something that people coach their whole career and never get there. I was 22, and I don’t think I really understood the magnitude of it.”
Zuniga worked on Roubique’s staff for six seasons and learned a great deal from her mentor.
Zuniga said Roubique gave her opportunities to learn that head coaches don’t often present to their assistants, including inviting her to playoff meetings and working alongside her on roles such as purchasing and budgeting.
She called Roubique a “phenomenal mentor.”
Roubique was impressed with Zuniga, so it wasn’t a surprise when the 11th high school in Cy-Fair ISD (Cypress Park) hired Zuniga to start its girls basketball program in 2016.
“Ashlaa is one of the best coaches I’ve worked with,” Roubique said. “She was very young when she joined the Cy-Fair staff, but in her approach, she demanded respect from the athletes that were just a few years younger than her. Her basketball background was strong, coming from Cedar Hill and Texas A&M. Honestly, I felt I learned from her. I felt comfortable giving her the opportunity to coach and not just watch from the sidelines.”
Zuniga enjoyed her time at Cypress Park, but her husband accepted a job offer in the Dallas area, and it was an opportunity to return home.
The couple and their children moved to Cedar Hill where they live in the home where Zuniga and her siblings grew up.
Along the way, Zuniga learned that you can prepare to become a head coach to a point, but there is nothing like actual experience.
Zuniga is counting the days until the schedule is released, and she can find out the days of the two matchups against her beloved alma mater.