Oct. 18, 2004
BERKELEY, Calif. - The California women's basketball team has the look of a winner in 2004-05.
After four years of building and gaining respect under head coach Caren Horstmeyer, the Golden Bears have the momentum and composition they need to post their first winning season in 12 years. Cal recorded a 12-17 overall record last season but won three of its final five games, highlighted by a 25-point victory over Oregon in the first round of the Pac-10 Tournament.
"We feel good about where we've come," said Horstmeyer, who was selected the 2004 Pac-10 Coach of the Year. "We clearly turned the corner a year ago and have our program heading in a great direction."
Cal opened 2003-04 with an 8-2 mark, including a 6-0 non-conference home record, for its best start in the last 11 years. Midway through the season, tragedy struck the team, as junior forward Alisa Lewis died suddenly from bacterial meningitis. With the unimaginable loss of a teammate, the Bears struggled to regroup until the end of the season, but showed why Marsha Sharp - head coach of national power Texas Tech - dubbed them, "the best team we've played so far," earlier in the year.
With Lewis' memory forever in their hearts, the Cal players look forward to a successful 2004-05 campaign, which hopefully will include the program's first NCAA Tournament appearance in 12 years.
"Our strong finish last year was very important because we started off so well and then we hit the tough stage," Horstmeyer said. "The character that the players showed by finishing strong was key to the positive feelings we have heading into this season. Our players expect to win.
Now, we want them to expect to take the next step, which is advancing to the postseason."
This season, Cal is a veteran unit with five seniors and one junior accounting for nine of the returning letterwinners. Additionally, the team welcomes a talented group of six newcomers who provide added competition at all positions.
"We have a great mix," Horstmeyer said. "The newcomers will definitely push and complement the returning players. We're excited about the freshmen and our junior college transfer because of their versatility, drive and skills in different areas of the game."
The Bears benefit from returning three senior starters - guard Kristin Iwanaga and forwards Leigh Gregory and Kiki Williams - who were among the squad's top five scorers a year ago. Iwanaga and Gregory have been regular starters since they arrived on campus in 2001.
Gregory had a career junior year, finishing second on the team in scoring (11.5 ppg) and first in both rebounding (4.9 rpg) and field goal percentage (.510). Iwanaga averaged 6.9 points per game, dished off 70 assists and shot 35.0 percent from three-point range to lead the Bears in the last two categories for the third straight year. Williams had a solid overall junior campaign, contributing 6.4 points and 3.4 rebounds per outing and nailing 22 three-pointers.
As a team, Cal had a breakout offensive year due in large part to the introduction of the Triangle offense. Last season, the Bears averaged 64.7 points per game, the team's highest scoring average in eight years. With the offensive framework in place, Horstmeyer is eager to see the results the new offense will bring this year.
"It's important that we have many players who already know the Triangle," Horstmeyer said. "They're going to be able to help the new players. It's crucial that we evolve offensively this year into not being so predictable. The repetitions we've had running the Triangle should make us less predictable this year."
While Horstmeyer is expecting great results offensively this season, the team's defense is also a focus. In Horstmeyer's first four years at the helm, Cal has recorded four of the top five all-time best scoring defenses in school history, including the 2001-02 season's record of 63.2 ppg and 2003-04's fourth-best mark of 65.1 ppg.
Kristin Iwanaga is the incumbent at the point guard position, but she'll receive ample competition from redshirt sophomore Sarah Pool and freshmen Seda Erdogan and Kelly O'Connell. Iwanaga has been the Bears' floor leader for the last three seasons and is a strong outside shooter, leading the team with 28 three-pointers in `03-04. She also is Cal's career free throw leader at 86.7 percent.
"K.I. is one of the most competitive players on the team," Horstmeyer said. "She has made great strides with her vocal leadership. She has an excellent ability to attack the basket. Sometimes we just need to prod her to do that more often."
Pool redshirted last season after having surgery on her back. She is a flashier player than Iwanaga, with an ability to score and distribute the ball, as well. As a freshman in 2002-03, Pool posted 3.2 points and 2.6 assists per game and shot a team-best 91.3 percent from the foul line.
"We are excited to have Sarah back in the lineup," Horstmeyer said. "She brings energy to the team and excels at igniting our transition game."
A four-year member of the Turkish junior national team, Erdogan is a talented passer who also can score. While playing for Besiktas, a junior club team in Istanbul, last season, Erdogan averaged 30.0 points and six assists per game. The 17-year-old had ACL surgery in October 2003 and continues to work on developing her leg strength.
"Seda's biggest asset is her on-court savvy," Horstmeyer said. "She has a knack for knowing when to pass, when to penetrate and when to shoot the three."
Despite being only 5-5, O'Connell may be the Bears' toughest player, as she played with a broken foot the last six weeks of her senior season at Mullen High School in Lakewood, Colo. As a senior, O'Connell averaged 14.2 points, 7.1 assists and 4.3 steals per game, helping her school to a runner-up finish at the state tournament. Her 226 career three-pointers is a school record.
"Because she is somewhat of a smaller guard, Kelly's understanding of the game allows her to utilize her skills to the fullest," Horstmeyer said.
Cal faces the tough task of replacing last year's senior shooting guards - Nihan Anaz and LaTasha O'Keith - but has several options to choose from. After averaging a team-high in points (14.1 ppg) and steals (1.8 spg), Anaz earned first team All-Pac-10 honors last year. O'Keith averaged 8.4 points per game and won the team's Best Defensive Player award.
Senior Jacqueline Sanchez is capable of playing multiple positions for Cal, including shooting guard. A physical presence, Sanchez averaged 4.2 points and 3.2 rebounds per game as a junior. Her 40 offensive boards were second on the team behind Leigh Gregory, who had 44 as a starter.
"I'm excited about Jacqueline's performance in individual workouts this fall," Horstmeyer said. "We'd like to see her assume a bigger scoring role this season."
Sophomore Keanna Levy, an Iowa Gatorade Player of the Year as a prep, will see minutes at the off-guard and small forward positions. After playing only zone defense in high school, Levy developed into a good perimeter defender as a freshman. She also provided a lift offensively, posting a career-high eight points against No. 11 Stanford and seven points against UCLA.
"Keanna is arguably the most athletic player on the team," Horstmeyer said. "I was impressed with how quickly she learned as a freshman." Freshman Brio Rode comes to Cal as a two-time New Mexico Gatorade Player of the Year and will see time at the small forward and at off-guard spots this season. Rode started for Rio Rancho High School in Albuquerque since the eighth grade and led the school to five state tournament appearances. As a senior, she averaged 19 points, six assists and three steals per game. Her worth ethic has allowed her to overcome two knee surgeries in the last year.
"Brio knows the game extremely well," Horstmeyer said. "She's a great passer and is a phenomenal scorer. She knows how to create her own shot and makes great decisions. She is a coach on the floor."
Leigh Gregory has been a fixture in the Bears' lineup at power forward since her 2001-02 freshman campaign, starting 76 of the 82 games she has played in. The 6-0 product from Pleasant Hill, Calif., recorded her best season to date last year, highlighted by a double-double (18 points, 11 rebounds) against Oregon State.
"Leigh is going to show everyone this season that she has completed her game," Horstmeyer said. "She came in as a back-to-the-basket player. Now, she can go inside or outside. The biggest difference between Leigh as a freshman and Leigh now is in her maturity - physically and mentally - and in her leadership."
Kiki Williams, who is working on her master's in education, is in her fifth season at Cal. As a junior, Williams was a regular starter for the first time as a Bear and made all-around contributions to the team. She tallied a career-high 24 points at UCLA and 15 points - 5-of-5 on three-pointers - in Cal's conference tournament win over the Ducks.
"Kiki has developed into one of the leaders of the team and has done a great job mentoring our younger players," Horstmeyer said. "I expect big things from her this season."
Another versatile forward, junior Reneé Wright was one of Cal's top reserves in 2003-04. Wright contributed 4.7 points and 2.7 rebounds per game as a sophomore and posted a career-high 16 points in Cal's Pac-10 Tournament win over Oregon. The product of Antelope, Calif., also emerged as one of Cal's top defenders.
"I'd like to see Reneé step up as a consistent go-to player for us," Horstmeyer said. "She has shown that capability at times."
Freshman Krista Foster, who may see minutes at power forward and at center, is expected to help the Bears in scoring and rebounding - a category Cal was last in the Pac-10 in 2003-04. As a senior at Del Campo High School in Fair Oaks, Calif., Foster contributed 25 points, 16 rebounds, five blocks, three steals and three assists per game, earning her second league MVP selection.
"Krista is one of the hardest workers we've ever had in the program," Horstmeyer said. "She's a tenacious rebounder and has a knack to score around the basket."
Junior Aminata Soumaré transferred to Cal after spending two seasons at Dixie State College in Utah. Soumaré recorded 9.0 points and 9.0 rebounds per game as a sophomore, before tearing her ACL six games into the season. Once she's healthy, Soumaré will be a key wing player on the team.
"Aminata does a great job looking for her shot in individual work," Horstmeyer said. "She's a good rebounder and is very active. She's agile and makes things happen defensively as a tall perimeter player."
Freshman Jessica Lawson is the leading contender to start at center for the Bears. Lawson is coming off a storybook senior season at Jones High School in Orlando, Fla., when she led her team to the 2004 state 4A title. She also earned her second consecutive Orlando Sentinel Central Florida Player of the Year honor after averaging 20.1 points and 17.2 rebounds per game.
"Jessica is an amazingly coachable player," Horstmeyer said. "She is quick to learn new skills. Developing additional strength will be important to her success in the Pac-10."
Senior Khadijah Coakley is one of the most athletic players on the team and was one of a program-high six Pac-10 All-Academic picks in 2003-04. Coming off ACL surgery after her sophomore season, Coakley posted a career-high six points at home against UCLA as a junior and averaged 1.3 points and 0.7 rebounds per game.
"Khadijah has the potential to be one of the best rebounders on our team if she sets her mind to it," Horstmeyer said.
After making the adjustment to Division I college basketball last season, sophomore Emmelie Geraedts looks to play a bigger role this year.
Geraedts, a member of the Dutch national team, will also see minutes at forward. Her best outings in 2003-04 came against UCLA (eight points, three rebounds) and Oregon (seven points, two blocks and one rebound). "Emmelie made huge strides last season," Horstmeyer said. "She will have the opportunity to earn more playing time this season."
Cal tips off the season at home at Haas Pavilion with exhibition games Nov. 3 against Northwest Sports and Nov. 10 against a Bay Area Pro-Am team. The regular-season opener is at home Nov. 21 versus Navy. Cal set a program home attendance average record of 1,615 fans per game in 2003-04 and has averaged over 1,000 fans per game at home for four straight seasons.
After the Navy game, Cal journeys to the Rainbow Wahine Classic Nov. 26-28. The Hawaii tournament features three 2004 NCAA Tournament teams in Georgia, Michigan State and TCU, which Cal faces in the opening round of the tournament.
The Bears then return home for a five-game homestand, beginning with the Contra Costa Times Classic Dec. 4-5. The field includes Pepperdine, a 2004 NIT team, Cal State Northridge and Tennessee Tech. Cal then entertains Saint Mary's Dec. 10, Long Beach State Dec. 12 and Hampton Dec. 21.
Cal begins Pac-10 play at Oregon Dec. 27 and at Oregon State Dec. 29. Washington comes to Berkeley for the Bears home conference opener Jan. 2. The fourth annual Pac-10 Tournament will be staged March 4-7 at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif.