March 22, 2004
BERKELEY, Calif. - Caren Horstmeyer's Golden Bears drew 1,615 fans per game to set the school attendance record for women's basketball. In the second of two installments, the fourth-year Cal coach talks about her team's most improved player, her seniors and the future of the program.
Q) How have you seen the fan support grow for Cal women's basketball since your arrival in Berkeley?
"I'm a firm believer that if young children and families have a great experience at the game, they will come back. That was shown during the time where we lost a number of games in a row, our attendance kept growing. Where I've seen the development is in areas such as Caren's Kids, the autographs after the games and the game atmosphere is growing. Coming to a Cal women's basketball game is exciting. The more people that are in the stands, the more exciting it becomes. As a coach, you want to see it grow more and more, and I think that it will. Our fans have been our sixth man and have helped us win at home. We didn't lose a non-conference game at home and then won our first Pac-10 game at home. They were a huge help in our win over USC. It's been a great accomplishment that we could have the best season that Cal has ever had in terms of attendance."
Q) How important was the win over Oregon in the Pac-10 Tournament?
"The last three wins [over USC, 68-58, Oregon State, 66-57, and Oregon, 82-57] we had were all really important. Winning the game in the tournament the way we did where we came out and clearly had a handle and ended up winning by 25. This year's team is the first one since I've been here that we believed we could be in the postseason. We felt we were a team that was good enough to be in the postseason. The players felt this and sensed this. After we lost 11 in a row, that's a difficult time. So, to be able to come back and be a decisive winner in the tournament against an opponent that has tradition. Knowing we're a good team is important to the future of the program. They truly have a belief in the direction we're heading."
"I'm going to miss a lot about that group. LaTasha came in when I came in. So, she has seen the program grow in four years. It has grown tremendously from where we've been in many different areas. For example, in areas of community service and academics and attendance. Tasha has seen a change. We now have a winning attitude, a great work ethic and an atmosphere of success in everything we do. That culture has taken four years to develop. Olga is clearly a part of that culture. Nihan is part of that culture because in her two years we've made great steps since she has been here. She is a big part of the program because of her contributions on the court setting a new standard of where we need to be. All three were a huge part of the best team we've had in the last four years."
Q) Who do you feel was the biggest unsung hero on the team this season?
"I believe Leigh Gregory is the biggest unsung hero. In my years of coaching, I've seen that the unsung heroes make the difference in championship teams. The unsung hero is the one that steps up and doesn't necessarily get recognized by others but know how important they are to their coaches and team. Leigh Gregory is that person in so many different ways. She was a captain. She was positive and coachable. She worked hard in the offseason in terms of leading other players. On the court, she was probably our most consistent player game in and game out. I thought her scoring was more consistent. Defensively, she made great strides where we could put her on [Stanford's] Nicole Powell and other teams' best players. Maybe we couldn't have done that a year ago. She came up with huge offensive rebounds that were key for the team. The last thing is that to me an unsung hero can often be your most versatile player. You can go inside-outside. Leigh is a utility player for us. Leigh will play, without ever complaining, wherever we need her to. We like her in the post, but when we had Olga in, we had to have her on the perimeter."
Q) Who was your most improved player this season?
"The one that jumps out at me right away is Olga Volkova. She made incredible strides in her three years here. From last year, she was more confident, strong physically, inside presence defensively, and her ability to rebound was key. Olga made a difference for us.
"The other would be LaTasha O'Keith. This year, she came back with a renewed passion, which enabled her to work her way back into the starting lineup where she was two years ago. Not only did she work her way back into the starting lineup, she had considerable minutes and her scoring average was way up [3.3 ppg to 8.4 ppg]. She made a big difference for the team this year."
Q) What are some signs that the future for Cal basketball looks bright?
"Our team has a winning mentality which is different than a few years ago. They believe in what we're doing. We return three starters in Kristin Iwanaga, Leigh Gregory and Kiki Williams. Leigh and K.I. have been starting since their freshmen seasons. The excitement around Renee Wright and Jacqueline Sanchez is amazing from a coach's perspective. Our younger players on the bench stepped up down the stretch and did an outstanding job. Renee gives this team effort points from a rebounding and getting on loose ball perspective. And, she has really improved her shooting percentage from the floor. She is player I know knows how to score. And, we're going to need a player to step up her scoring. Renee can be that person. So can Jacqueline. We joke with Jacqueline about shooting the rock. She shot 50 percent from the floor. She is smart. You can play her at the point guard, wing and post. You're going to see her play a lot more guard next year. From an offensive perspective, the two of them have really grown and will step right into their own as a junior and senior. The incoming class will also make a difference at every position and impact our program over the next four years."