Aggies embark on their journey for a fifth straight Big West crown
The UC Davis Women’s Basketball team has been atop the Big West Conference for the past four seasons. Riding high after an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2019, the Aggies prepared to make it two straight appearances in the big dance. But their aspirations were put to a halt by COVID-19 back in mid-March. As they prepared to leave Davis enroute to Anaheim, they received the news. With everything coming so fast, the hardest part was trying to come to terms that some had played their last game of college basketball ever.
“We were all just really sad,” said Jennifer Gross, the UC Davis Women’s Basketball head coach. “We were entering the tournament really confident and ready. It was heartbreaking, especially for the seniors.”
“It was very abrupt. It was hard. It was really hard,” Gross said.
With Sophia Song, Nina Bessolo and Katie Toole all in their last year, the cancellation of their season meant an end to their playing careers, a tough blow for everyone involved.
“We didn’t get to send the seniors off the way we wanted to,” said senior forward Cierra Hall. “It was devastating. A lot of hurt went around but we just banded together and said there was nothing we could do in a situation like this but stick together.”
The pandemic did not allow for a normal lead-up to the season, and the teams’ spring and summer were left to figure out a way to stay on course as much as they could. Zoom meetings every week or so allowed them to stay in contact and build the team chemistry that has fueled the program over the years. Fun activities and meaningful conversations about what was going on in the world gave the team the opportunity to stay connected and garner a better understanding of what kind of team they would be leading up into the season. Although all those activities helped, doing them virtually will never feel the same as in person, and for Hall, these times gave her a chance to try to reset and work on herself.
“A lot of mental health work,” said Hall in reference to her time at home. “Just envisioning my game and doing stuff in my house. A lot of dribbling on the sidewalk and working on my mental health, just getting my goals prepared for the next year.”
Long months of not playing basketball as a team finally came to an end on Oct. 14, the first day they were allowed to practice together. Their passion for the game of basketball increased during that time, and the team practiced hard in the lead-up to their Nov. 25 opener. This years’ roster has a mix of veteran and young players and as they play their opening games, the excitement only grows stronger.
“The younger players have established themselves very well,” Hall said. “We have established a strong culture here. I think it was easy for the freshmen and those who redshirted last year to see that and to feel that.”
Their strong leadership and team culture has built this program into one that has brought them so much success throughout the last couple of years.
“Whenever you lose such talented seniors, it’s hard,” Gross said. “But, I’ve been really impressed with our group of players this year. In terms of leadership, this is one of the best groups we’ve ever had at UC Davis. The chemistry is really building day by day and it’s exciting to see. We have a good balance of veterans that are setting an example everyday and the younger players that are soaking it all up and trying to bring that energy.”
With changes to the conference scheduling, the Aggies’ road to a fifth straight Big West title will look much different than usual. Having started out with their non-conference schedule on Nov. 25 in a win against the University of San Francisco, the team got a feeling of what this season might be like early on.
On Nov. 27, it was announced that UC Davis’ games against Simpson University on Nov. 28 and Santa Clara University on Dec. 3 would be canceled due to positive COVID-19 tests on the opposing teams. Since they are non-conference games, there is a question whether they will be rescheduled. Nonetheless, with college basketball just recently tipping off, this looks like it will be something to adjust to as the season progresses.
That leaves the Aggies’ with three non-conference games remaining before Big West play. Meeting in the Causeway Classic in Sacramento, UC Davis takes on the Sacramento State Hornets on Dec. 8. They follow it up by traveling to Stanford later that week to face the highly ranked Cardinals. To finish off their non-conference schedule, they will face Northern Arizona at The Pavilion on Dec. 20.
Coming into the season ranked first in the Big West coaches and media poll, the Aggies will begin their campaign in a series against CSU Bakersfield (Dec. 27-28) in Davis, Calif. They then travel to take on UC Riverside (Jan. 1-2) and then play UC Irvine (Jan. 8-9) at The Pavilion. They then play Cal State Fullerton (Jan. 15-16) in Southern California before coming back to Davis to play newly-added UC San Diego (Jan. 22-23). Following their trip to Santa Barbara (Jan. 29-30), they embark on a week break before returning and visiting Long Beach State (Feb. 12-13). From there, they face Cal Poly (Feb. 26-27) at The Pavilion and finish off the season in Hawaii (Mar. 5-6).
With games this season being played back to back in order to reduce travel, this new element allows teams to get familiar with their opponents on consecutive nights.
“It’s going to be a bit of learning as we go,” said Gross about the back-to-back games. “Our team does have some good depth and we’re going to need that. It’ll be strange to not have that day in-between, but it’s going to be about which team makes adjustments the best.”
With the seniors of last year departing to their future endeavors, the team was left with a lot open on the offensive end. With a Preseason All-Conference player like Hall and redshirt senior guard Mackenzie Trpcic leading the charge alongside returning players like Sage Stobbart, Evanne Turner, Kayla Konrad and more, the Aggies will figure out the offensive side of the ball as the season progresses.
“One thing we’ve always hung our hats on is our defense,” Gross said. “We have a number of players who can put the ball in the basket but it’s been our defense that has been super reliable and has helped us win the last four championships. The commitment to building a really strong defense and building habits every single day knowing that whether you’re at home or on the road, they’re going to be there for you when you need them.”
This will be a season unlike any other for teams across the country. For the Aggies, they will do their best to make the most of their circumstances. With the constant possibility of games being moved around, the team is hoping that in spite of everything, they can come out on top and win their fifth straight Big West championship.
“It’s about taking every single day and how we approach it and attack it,” Hall said. “We’re very much focused on getting better and improving every day so we’re able to put the best version of ourselves out on the court each time we play. We know that we have a bit of a target on our backs, so we need to bring the best to every game we play.”
Written by: Omar Navarro — email@example.com