March 11, 2002
BERKELEY - Patricia and Martin St. John are 10-year season ticket holders with the Cal women's basketball program. On the weekend of February 21, 2002, they traveled with the team to the away games in Los Angeles. What follows is their account of the road trip.
We won!! As season ticket holders, Martin and I were entered in a drawing, sponsored by Cal Marketing and Promotions, to travel with the women?s basketball team for their games against UCLA and USC.
We gathered at the Oakland Airport on Thursday afternoon, February 21, and took off for Los Angeles at 5:50 p.m. on a warm, spring like day, with an orange hazy sunset forming outside our window.
The team was mellow on the flight, with many of the players listening to music on headphones. Camille Burke, assistant coach from Wisconsin, carries a gumball bag that gets passed around among the players on the plane and subsequently on the bus also.
The timing of everything in a day is referenced to game time, thus breakfast is at 10 a.m., the next meal would be a pre-game meal at 3 p.m., with a scheduled 7 p.m. game. We have breakfast with the team, coaches and support staff. Each player to be taped by trainer Carol Rogers brings an eight pack of tape that they take to Carol?s room. With a scheduled practice at 1 p.m., they have taping appointments starting at 10:30 a.m.
On the bus for practice at Pauley Pavilion on the UCLA campus. Coach Caren Horstmeyer never misses a chance to teach. She gave the team handouts to read on the plane. And then when there is a communication that hasn?t made its way through the team earlier, she initiates a game of telephone on the bus to talk about the importance of passing along messages to the whole team. The team spirit is evident: no blame, a light-hearted discussion of message giving and then a hilarious game of telephone.
Note: Home court advantage has greater meaning to me now: an away game means long preparation for a flight, long bus rides in downtown LA, different beds, meals, surroundings, all adding up to more energy expended on surviving, not playing basketball.
We arrive at UCLA and enter an empty Pauley Pavilion. It is quiet, still - waiting for activity. The sound of a basketball breaks the silence and echoes against thousands of seats and concrete walls. The practice starts with dribbling up and down the floor so players get used to the feel of the ball on the boards. Then passing, lay-ups, and shooting practice follow. Assistant Coach Kirsten McKnight, who scouted UCLA, helps lead a session on specific offensive and defensive plays geared towards the Bruins' strengths and weaknesses. Caren works with individual execution, and there is time for players to ask about their role on specific plays.
7:00 p.m. game time!
Caren invites Martin and me to be honorary coaches! That means sitting on the team bench, being a part of the huddles during time-outs and joining the team and coaches in the locker room at half-time and after the game. Wow! It is an honor, and we love every minute of it. From the bench, the world narrows to an intense focus on the court, on the game. You can?t see the opposing team's bench or specific faces in the stands. The action on the court is totally captivating. The only thing that would have made the experience perfect was if we had beaten UCLA.
Later Carol Alfano, Director of Basketball Operations, and former successful Division I coach, would say words to the effect: There's nothing better than winning a game you're not expected to win, and there is nothing worse than losing a game you should have won.
That was our situation. In our heart of hearts we knew we should have beaten UCLA. And yet, for us, it was a perfect experience. We were able to experience Caren and her staff and the players after a hard defeat.
Character and spirit, strength and one's true mettle are revealed during these moments. What we experienced was a coaching staff, starting with Caren, who has integrity, compassion and shoots straight from the hip. What needed to be said was said and in such a way that everyone could move forward and build on the learnings from today, sobered but motivated to live up to the motto on the back of the players' team t-shirts: Play hard, play smart, play together.
The bus ride back to the hotel is quiet. No one takes the loss lightly. For the first time there is no music on the bus, the players, riding in the back of the bus, are quiet. The coaches cluster in the front of the bus, with the stat sheets in front of them, asking what next? What does this loss tell us about our weaknesses and strengths? How do we take the lessons of this loss, internalize them and apply them to the next game? What will be our plan for Sunday's game against USC?
So for the next couple of hours, during the post game dinner at the hotel, and beyond that is the focus of the discussions. Each of us, coaches, and supporting staff all reflected on the loss in our own way.
Saturday, 3:00 p.m.:
We arrive at USC's campus and practice in the North Gym. It reminds me of the gyms at Albany High (my former high school) and St. Mary?s High (Martin?s high school) that were built in the 20's or 30's. Right in front of me is trainer Carol Rogers testing LaTasha O?Keith's knee. She banged it up during the UCLA game and was experiencing swelling. It was iced on the bus, and Carol is now massaging the knee to help take down the swelling even more. She then wraps the knee, and LaTasha watches the remainder of the practice from the floor with her leg elevated on a stack of towels.
The practice goes well. There is a spirit of determination and a palatable desire to beat USC. Dribbling, shooting and defensive moves are practiced. Then Camille works with the forwards and centers on defense, and Caren and Assistant Coach Shaunice Warr with the guards on defensive plays. The focus then turns to strategy and specific plays to be run based on knowledge of USC's previous games and their players. A scrimmage follows. Caren never ceases to teach, to affirm the good plays and decisions, and to work on the stuff that isn't working.
Sunday, at 10 a.m., in an hotel side lobby, the team performs a walk through of the plays they would execute in the game against USC.
We check out of the hotel, board our bus and drive through LA to our next game. We arrive at the LA Sports Arena, which is going through retrofitting and is virtually covered in black plastic throughout the inside. The team stretches, warms up and becomes familiar with the court. For the freshmen, the majority of the team, this will be the first time they have experienced this court, an hour before playing on it.
Game time! We play well! Aggressive, good defense, good shooting and, after a fast start by USC, we lead at the half 26-22. The Trojans pulled ahead part way through the second half and finally beat us. We lose, but it is a much better loss.
After saying goodbye to many friends and families who watched both the USC game and the UCLA game, we head off for the airport. After smoothly going through group check-in, we go through security, have an airport meal and board our SW flight to Oakland. Though tired, our minds are on the Pac-10 Tournament and what we need to do to beat UCLA in Oregon this coming week.
For Martin and me, from Thursday through Sunday we were transported to the world of Cal Women's basketball: we experienced the team, coaches, and supporting staff on airplanes, buses, in our hotel, at meals, practice, games, the locker room at half time and after a game, and at dinner in a player's family home. The players are all a great bunch of young women! They show respect for each other and the coaches. The team has an easy camaraderie and respond well to Caren and the rest of the staff. They welcomed us into their world with smiles and warmth. They will always have a place in our hearts.
The coaches are also extraordinary. Caren, with her open, approachable manner, welcomed and accepted our presence with an inclusiveness that made our experience quite remarkable. Caren is always alert to teaching opportunities and feels a tremendous responsibility to help each member of this team become the best she can and to be able to compete successfully in Division I basketball. She has hired three very talented assistant coaches. We were very impressed with each for their knowledge, skill and experience.
Each brings different strengths and perspectives, and Caren knows how to use it all. It is obvious that Caren values each of them and everything they have to offer the program. The support staff is also much appreciated and never taken for granted. Caren is working hard to build a solid foundation for the women?s basketball program: her values of integrity, openness, compassion, her commitment to excellence and a high quality Division I program are inspirational. We were privileged to experience Cal Women's Basketball from the inside. It is truly worthy of all the time, energy and support we can give it in its growing years.