By: Tim Haran -
Following Cal's Pac-10 opening loss to Arizona on Jan. 4, senior forward Lauren Ashbaugh knew the Bears had let one slip away. Leading the Wildcats at halftime, Arizona outscored Cal by a dozen points in the second half while pulling down 15 more rebounds en route to a 79-68 win at Haas Pavilion.
"We knew we had a very good shot at beating Arizona and we didn't take advantage of it," Ashbaugh said two weeks after the loss. "We killed ourselves by not rebounding and our defense just wasn't there."
After squandering another halftime lead two days later against Arizona State, the Bears regrouped as they traveled north to play Oregon and Oregon State. This time the smaller Cal team outrebounded both opponents and notched the Bears first conference win of the season, defeating the Beavers 79-72 on Jan. 13.
"We're not very big and we don't matchup by height at all against teams like Oregon and Stanford," Ashbaugh said. "If we don't block out, we're shooting ourselves in the foot and these teams have an even larger advantage over us."
At 6-foot-2, Ashbaugh is able to matchup against virtually anybody. The aggressive forward is a force in the paint and continues to improve her shot from the outside. As one of the team's most prolific rebounders throughout her career, this season Ashbaugh averaged 6.1 boards per game heading into the Bears' contest against Stanford. She is also averaging 9.6 points per game in her first 14 outings this season and she recorded her fifth career double-double against Rutgers in November.
All this from a player who grew up riding horses and playing soccer in the Pacific Northwest.
Years before Microsoft moved in, Ashbaugh and her family made their home in the then-rural community of Redmond, Wash. When the athletically inclined Ashbaugh wasn't in the forests of western Washington riding her horse, she found herself immersed in the sport of soccer. It wasn't until the fifth grade when her father and former Northwestern University hoops star encouraged the obviously gifted athlete to dribble a basketball.
She became hooked immediately.
"I was just good at it," Ashbaugh said. "I'm naturally pretty aggressive and I also like the fact that it's a team sport. I enjoy hanging out with teammates, they keep me going."
While playing for Redmond High School, Ashbaugh earned first team all-state honors as a junior and second team as a senior. She was named the Seattle Times Kingco Conference Player of the Year her junior year when she averaged 14 rebounds and 17.8 ppg.
Ashbaugh's close ties with her family narrowed her collegiate choices to schools in the West. The integrative biology major ultimately chose Cal for its academic reputation.
Four years later Ashbaugh is one of seven seniors on Cal's team. But she insists that because it's Cal coach Caren Horstmeyer's first year at the helm of the Bears, the veterans are learning just the same as the younger players.
"The coaching change (at the start of this season) made a huge difference," Ashbaugh said. "It pretty much changed everything. Our offense is different, our defense is different, our entire strategy is different."
And as with anything that requires new skills to be acquired and schemes to be studied, Ashbaugh and the Bears are still working on mastering the Horstmeyer system.
"We are learning every game," Ashbaugh said. "In a lot of ways we still aren't entirely sure what their (the coaches) reactions to certain things are going to be and they don't completely know us yet, but we're definitely learning about each other every day."
She added that the mindset of the team also changed with the introduction of the new coaching staff.
"It's unfortunate that the coaching change happened when seven of us are seniors, it might have been easier if it happened when we were younger," Ashbaugh said. "It's just nice that basketball is fun again. It's an entirely different atmosphere this year."
Ashbaugh lists Cal's dramatic victory over then-No. 9 Colorado State two years ago at the Oakland Tribune Classic and her back-to-back double-doubles against the Washington schools last season as her greatest basketball moments.
"The day before we played Washington we rode horses and played around all day," Ashbaugh remembered. "We were just very relaxed and we ended up winning the game."
In addition to Lauren leading the Bears, others in the Ashbaugh family know their way around a basketball court. Her father Bryan was a four-year letterwinner at Northwestern before playing professionally in Finland and trying out for the Denver Nuggets. Ashbaugh's 6-foot-5 younger sister Emily currently plays for the University of Wisconsin.
"We play one-on-one sometimes," Ashbaugh said about backyard matchups against her sister, "but not very often because we just get mad at each other. I'm not supposed to lose because I'm older and she's not supposed to lose because she's taller."
Considering her play at Cal, Ashbaugh recognizes toughness as one of her greatest strengths. Add to that tenacious rebounding skills, a decent outside shot and a solid inside game and Ashbaugh is one of Cal's most versatile players. She mentions her inconsistency as a weakness this season with a tendency to get down on herself early. But after four years as a Golden Bear, it's unlikely that Ashbaugh's weaknesses will overshadow her successes at Cal.
"I want to be remembered as someone who worked really hard and someone who was a positive influence and energy on this team," she said.