By: Tim Haran -
As one of seven seniors on Cal's roster this season, Nicole Ybarra may have the most to prove. The 5-foot-8 senior transferred from Sacramento City College prior to the 1999-00 season but saw limited playing time last year while she nursed a sore Achilles tendon.
After recovering from an ankle injury that sidelined her for three weeks at the start of this season, the reserve guard is working harder than ever to earn minutes on the court.
"My goal right now is to steadily improve my numbers," says Ybarra, who is averaging 1.2 points and 1.3 rebounds in six games this year. "It's hard because I'm still earning a spot on the floor, but coach (Caren) Horstmeyer is trying to work me in."
The frustrating part, Ybarra adds, is that she knows her capabilities on the court while she struggles with her physical limits.
"Since my injury, I've been trying to regain my speed," she says. "It's pretty hard mentally to be injured all of the time because your mind knows what to do but your body won't let you do it."
The 8.7 minutes-per-game average in her first six games of the season is unusual for Ybarra, who stood out as a premier junior college athlete and gutted out 10 minutes per game during her injury-riddled season at Cal last year.
While at Sacramento City College, Ybarra led her team to the state playoffs and captured all-conference honors twice. As a sophomore, she was named 1999 Player of the Year for the Valley Division of the Bay Valley Conference while averaging 13 points, 5 assists, 3 steals and 3 rebounds per game.
When on the court, Ybarra emphasizes a fast-paced offense while she's running the floor at the point. She recognizes it's her responsibility to take control of the ball game, and if that means a little showtime here and there, all the better. "I wouldn't call my play flashy," she says, "but I like no-look passes and stuff like that. I love to push the ball up the court."
But when her career at Cal is through, Ybarra says she wouldn't mind being remembered as a role player-if that's what it takes to help the Bears win.
"Our team really needs to prove something this year," she says. "We're a lot better than people think we are, and we have so much talent. My role on the team is to do whatever it takes to help us win games."
Specifically, Ybarra recognizes Cal's defense as a key to the team's success. Avoiding turnovers is the second step to ensuring Cal comes out on top. "If we do those two things, we'll win," she says.
For Ybarra, who would like to coach basketball after graduation, sports came naturally. She describes herself as a tomboy that participated in practically every sport while growing up in Sacramento. Ultimately the cowhide won her undivided attention. Even though she admits basketball probably wasn't the sport she was most skilled at, it was definitely the most exciting sport to play.
Ybarra started dribbling a basketball when she was 7-years old in an organized league or in a pick-up game with her cousins-all of whom were boys and all of whom weren't about to let a girl take them to the hole, at least not at first.
"They were older than me, so they beat up on me pretty good," Ybarra says of her early days as the only girl on the basketball court. "But as I got older and more coordinated, I started to hold my own."
Beating her cousins was fine, but to this day her face lights up most when she talks about her victory in a 1-on-1 game against the person who ignited her basketball career.
"I finally beat him one day when I was a senior," Ybarra says of the time she defeated her father and high school coach in a backyard hoops match. "It was the best. I ran in the house and said I quit, I'm never playing you again."
The threat was short-lived, and the two still battle back and forth on the court even though her father is taller, heavier and, as Ybarra says, "a decent basketball player with a good shot."
After playing basketball for two-thirds of her life, Ybarra isn't sure what will happen when she records her last assist and scores her final bucket in a Cal jersey. It's not something she wants to think about right now.
"I wish I could play collegiate basketball forever," she says. "I wouldn't mind going overseas to play, if possible. I think I need a lot of work, though."
As a player Ybarra considers herself a late bloomer who is just now starting to come into her own on the court. Another two or three years of learning both physically and mentally would help her a lot, she says.
And as for Cal this season?
"We're so close right now," she says. "Once we pull everything together, we're definitely going to have an impact on the Pac-10."