Amid everything that is going on with Aggie athletics this year, the spotlight now turns to basketball. Last season, the UC Davis women’s basketball program made it to the NCAA tournament — a first for UC Davis basketball in Division I — after having won the Big West Conference in Coach Sandy Simpson’s final year of his 14-season-long tenure.
It would be easy for UC Davis to make excuses and call this a rebuilding year, with a new head coach and the loss of its two key seniors.
But to UC Davis, the pursuit of excellence never meant taking the easy route.
With all the things that have changed from last season to this, the Aggies know they are not the same team as last year and have modified their goals after having the most successful season in UC Davis’ Division I existence. Led by Head Coach Jennifer Gross, they have set the bar higher.
“The neat thing about coming off such a successful season is our kids are determined to come back and they’re ready to step into new roles,” Gross said. “To be honest, we weren’t satisfied [with last year’s results] … the talk has been not just getting back but at least getting to that second round.”
The loss of the graduating seniors Paige Mintun and Heidi Heintz left holes in the roster that the Aggies will be searching to fill.
Yet, UC Davis’ goal this year is not necessarily to replace those players. Gross and her players have made it clear they will be tailoring their playing style to the roster they have this year rather than trying to duplicate that of last season.
“People are going to have to step it up this year. There’s a huge void, but I feel like we do have the capabilities to fill them,” senior forward Kasey Riecks said. “I don’t know if it will be a consistent three or four players scoring every night, but it will be a group effort this year.”
The loss of top rebounders and scorers is not exactly something that is easy to overcome. But Gross is certain they will make up for this in other areas.
Gross stated some of the team goals were not simply results-oriented, but that they were striving to build the team relationships and work ethic.
“We want to play tough, we want to play gritty, we want to play disciplined on both sides of the ball and we want to have fun doing it,” she said. “We will be working not just on technique, but also flat out toughness and effort.”
The absence of Simpson is also something Gross is unfamiliar with, but she knows his philosophy will not leave.
“You win with people: you recruit good people and do it as a team,” Gross said.
Riecks, Samantha Meggison, Lauren Juric and Hana Asano head the team as senior captains, but even they say leadership can come from anywhere on the court.
“We know what it’s like to end a successful season,” Riecks said. “We were all here last year and we know what we need to do to achieve that this season.”
The young talent Riecks speaks of could refer to a number of players, from incoming freshmen to returning juniors. Highlighting that group will be junior Cortney French, who will return after having missed last year due to injury, and who Asano credits as “the greatest shooter in the conference, by far.”
Asano hopes to lead the team as point guard and plans to spread the ball out, crediting the team as being balanced and faster than last year.
“We have a different style of play. We’re faster and scrappier and our defense is going to be different,” she said. “We’re excited to bring that onto the court and for the fans to see us.”
UC Davis opens its season on Friday at the University of Washington and plays a tough schedule for the duration of the season. But if there’s one thing the Aggies are working at, it’s doing whatever it takes to be successful.
“I think we’re going to be a really fun team to watch, we’re going to be a little faster pace,” Gross said. “I’m excited to see where that takes us because I’m ready to get going. We’re on our toes.”
Last year’s results showed that UC Davis belongs in Division I, but they will not stop there. The Aggies are out to prove they are here to compete with the best teams in the nation.
— Matthew Yuen