Only one goal remains for the UC Davis women’s basketball team – an NCAA tournament berth.
Last season the Aggies barely missed that feat, losing the Big West Conference Title game to UC Riverside by just four points.
This year, the preseason Big West media poll marked the Aggies as the favorites to win the conference title.
The Aggies know that being favored can make things more difficult.
“There’s a big target on our back,” said senior post Paige Mintun. “[The other teams in the Big West] want to come and get us.”
Despite all of their preseason accolades, UC Davis still has one major question to answer: how will they replace Haylee Donaghe?
Donaghe started every game for the Aggies last season and was the defensive leader for the team. In recognition of her stellar defense a season ago, Donaghe was named the Big West Defensive Player of the Year.
While she will no longer be on the floor for the Aggies, coach Sandy Simpson believes Donaghe’s influence will stay with the team.
“She’s left a legacy,” he said. “The way she played and how hard she worked modeled well for our younger players. Her impact is still being felt.”
One thing that will help offset the loss of Donaghe is the Aggies’ overall team depth.
Last year UC Davis had 11 players who averaged at least seven minutes per game.
This year, they could have an even better presence off the bench.
“I think we’re even deeper this year,” Mintun said. “We’re not going to have anyone who has to play 35 or 40 minutes. We won’t have any drop off when we make subs.”
UC Davis showed all of their depth in their exhibition game against San Francisco State last week.
The Aggies played 12 players, and shot 50 percent from the field in a 91-33 blowout of the Gators.
The game went better than Simpson could have imagined.
“Everything seemed to fall into place,” he said. “We just played great. It’s hard to believe we played that well right out of the blocks.”
Despite their great play in this game, the Aggies know they will face a much more serious test when they start their season in earnest this week, on the road against San Francisco.
The Aggies don’t know what to expect.
“We’re at a bit of a disadvantage,” Simpson said. “They have a new coach and we don’t really have any idea of what we’ll see from them. They’re returning 10 players so they’ll be a good challenge.”
Following Friday’s game, the Aggies will face a difficult home game against Washington State on Sunday.
“Any Pac-10 team is a challenge,” Simpson said. “Their pressure gave us some trouble last year, but this year we should be able to handle that better. We need to make sure we take care of the ball. We’ll be ready defensively.”
As in every year, UC Davis hopes that these games will be just the beginning of a journey that ends with an NCAA Tournament appearance.
This year, however, that goal holds a special significance.
Earlier this year, Simpson announced he will retire at the end of this season.
For Simpson, the idea of failing to make the NCAA Tournament has not entered his thought process.
“If we don’t make it we’ll be sorely disappointed,” he said, “but that’s not in our mindset right now.”
The UC Davis graduate has coached the team for 14 years and his players are hoping his career ends on a high note.
“He’s the definition of Aggie Pride and Aggie women’s basketball. To send him out on a high note is what we all want this season,” Mintun said. “[If we make the NCAA Tournament], I would cry.”
TREVOR CRAMER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.