She knew it was coming.

But, really, it's hard to prepare for Sept. 1 — the day the wave begins.

"I thought I was prepared," Azana Baines said. "Until the day actually came. Until your phone just starts blowing up."

Baines, a 6-foot-1 junior shooting guard for the Gloucester Catholic girls' basketball team, is one of the highest profile players in the state and one of the most talented in recent South Jersey history.

And this past Sept. 1 — of her junior year — was the first day college coaches could actively recruit her and formally express the interest that had been bottled up like a shaken liter of soda since Baines was in eighth grade.

The process is fun, Baines insists, and she's cherishing it.

But it takes planning. It takes patience and perspective.

With the help of her coaches, she sets boundaries and times when she's willing to talk to college coaches and times when she's not.

The obvious question is whether the recruiting process has been distracting, if looking up in the stands during a recent scrimmage and seeing that six coaches had flown in to watch her play was a bit too surreal.

It's not for Baines, who averaged 14.4 points last season and is approaching 1,000 for her career. That part of the process is easy.

"It's all about staying focused," said Baines, who recently announced that she has narrowed her top-15 schools to Rutgers, Temple, St. Joseph's, Penn State, Vanderbilt, Boston College, Virginia Tech, Michigan, Minnesota State, Miami, Wisconsin, Kentucky, West Virginia, Duke and Georgia Tech.

Gloucester Catholic junior Azana Baines is a 6-foot-1 shooting guard.
CHARLES FOX
Gloucester Catholic junior Azana Baines is a 6-foot-1 shooting guard.

Baines' elite status brings its share of wisdom. She's traveled the country with her AAU team, Books and Basketball Academy, and can give advice on some of her favorite spots. "I've loved the South," she said, not trying to hint (maybe) on what her college choice might be.

And she knows the game. She knows the countless hours it takes to be great.

And she's learned secrets of the trade.

"Playing against boys as often as you can," she said, revealing one of them. "That's definitely one thing that can help any girl get better and separate herself."

Baines' skill set speaks for itself. She's a silky smooth ball-handler, and with her height she can get to the basket at will during high school games. She's also flashed an improved three-point shot.

Her obvious talent put her on the map from an early age among college recruiters.

But what she's really working on this season with the Rams is how to spread that wisdom to her teammates, most of which have no varsity experience after Gloucester Catholic graduated a star-studded senior class for the second year in a row.

"I've challenged her this year to be that leader, to be more vocal, to be a little more accountable out on the court and lead by example," said Rams coach Lisa Gedaka. "I want her to be the first in sprints. Be the first to say, 'Hey that was my mistake.' I think the other players will really follow that.

"And I can honestly say I think she is really breaking out of her shell right now in that regard."

Gloucester Catholic junior Azana Baines said she wants to be more vocal on the court.
CHARLES FOX
Gloucester Catholic junior Azana Baines said she wants to be more vocal on the court.

On the court, Baines is quiet by nature. But she scores. She averaged 14.4 points per game with the Rams last season and is approaching 1,000 for her career.

She'll dominate games this season with her skill, just like she always has. That might be the easy part. But Baines is determined to make her impact felt just as much off the court, those parts of the game, she said, that while recruiters might not see it will make all the difference at the next level.

"Slowly but surely I'm making progress," she said. "I know I have a great relationship with every player on the team.  And I know I'm out of my comfort zone a little bit with trying to be  more vocal. But I know it's not impossible. I just have to keep putting in the time."