Kirsten Moore found a life lesson on her young daughter’s bookshelf.
“I think I can, I think I can,” she’d read to little Alexis as they soldiered on without their husband and father.
Alex Moore died of complications following surgery in 2012, less than two months before his daughter’s birth.
That book, “The Little Engine That Could,” still resonates with both coach Kirsten Moore and the youngest fan of her Westmont College women’s basketball team.
“Alexis is a great reader, and she can read anything, really,” Moore said of her 7-year-old daughter. “But oh my gosh, that book is the best. It’s still in our library and is used often.
“You’ve got to first believe, but then you’ve got to be willing to keep taking steps, even when the task ahead looks daunting.”
That’s been her approach this season with the Warriors – a team that, at one point, was reduced to just six players by injuries and departures.
The loss of 6-foot sophomore star Sydney Brown to a preseason knee injury was especially taxing, making Westmont small in stature as well as numbers.
“Our team averages just 5-feet, 5-inches in height,” Moore said. “But I like to say that we’ve become the little engine that could.”
The Warriors, which suited up eight players on Saturday, romped past Menlo 81-53 at Murchison Gym to improve their records to 19-3 overall and 12-1 in the Golden State Athletic Conference. They are ranked No. 4 nationally in the NAIA and share first place in league with No. 1 The Masters.
“We’ve had a lot of unexpected things happen, on the court and off it,” said Maud Ranger, the team’s lone senior and its leading rebounder at just 5-foot-7 in height. “It’s just amazing to see how we have come together and really supported each other, knowing that we’re all in this together.”
Ranger got a double-double of 14 points and 11 rebounds on Saturday, and she’s nearly averaged one for the season (11.6 points, 9.7 rebounds).
Lauren Tsuneishi, a 5-foot junior guard who averages 11.1 points, no longer even thinks about the team’s physical and numerical shortcomings.
“It’s become so normal for us to have to overcome things that are hard,” she said. “Coach Moore is really great about rallying us around the vision of this program, which is based on hard work and team-ism.
“It really helps us having her spearheading that, knowing her story, how she can rise above all that she’s been through.”
Moore was born into a basketball family.
“My parents said the first word I ever said was ‘Ball,’” she said.
Her older brother, Billy McKnight, coached current UCSB stars Amadou Sow and Sékou Touré at national high school power Prolific Prep of Napa.
“He was the awesome big brother that would let me join him and his friends in whatever they were doing,” Moore said. “I’d follow him around and play all kinds of different sports.”
She admits that soccer was her future until she heard Olympic star Jennifer Aziz speak at her youth basketball camp.
“That was really when this dream was born,” Moore said. “I was like, ‘I’m doing that … I’m doing whatever it takes to do that.’
“I wasn’t the quickest, I wasn’t super-athletic, but I was like, ‘What do I have control over to make this happen?’ And that was my work ethic and my attitude toward it.”
Only Fresno Pacific, an NAIA school at the time, bothered to recruit Moore out of Redwood High School. But a twist of fate — a broken wrist suffered in a soccer match — turned out to be her big break in basketball.
“I taught myself how to shoot left-handed, and got really good at it,” she said.
So good, in fact, that she led Redwood High to an upset of state champion Berkeley High. When Oregon called the Berkeley coach, looking for a guard, he told them of this girl with a broken wrist who “did amazing” to beat his team with her left hand.
“You never know what choice is going to lead to an opportunity,” Moore observed.
Moore was brought to Oregon as a walk-on but soon earned a full scholarship. She played in four NCAA Tournaments and was named as a team captain in 1998. She won the team’s Most Inspirational Player Award as well as Academic All-America honors.
She and assistant coach Selena English have used every bit of their brainpower to help Westmont deal with its lack of height and numbers.
“When we lost our other post player and ended up having to play a four-guard lineup, Selena pretty much revamped the majority of our offense,” Moore said. “We don’t run much of what we ran last year even though our personnel is exactly the same, minus the changes with the injuries.
“I’ve had to change defensively, too, because we’re so undersized. We’ve had to get even more creative and find some different things that can work for us.”
She also recruited several male students to serve as a scout team so her Warriors can scrimmage five-on-five at practice.
“They get P.E. credit for it,” Moore said. “They all played in high school so they’ve got good understanding of the game.
“We teach them whatever the opposing team is going to do for that week. They really help us and are a big part of our success, for sure. We play those guys every day.”
She’s enjoyed unprecedented success as Westmont ’s coach, with a 15-year record of 347-122 (.740 winning percentage). She’s guided the Warriors to three NAIA Final Fours and to the national championship in 2013, less than a year after her husband’s unexpected death.
But Moore never preaches about results.
“I’m a coach who talks about process and how we do things,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of adversity personally in my life, too. The things I learned through that, and what got me through it, are things I can teach these young women.”
That team is young. Five of Westmont ’s eight players are only sophomores. But Tsuneishi says they can’t afford to “look too far into the future.”
“I know our record might say something,” she said, “but we know it always has to be a dogfight, no matter what.”
Moore has taught them that, her lone senior said.
“When you look at a team, if it’s a good one, that’s usually a reflection on the leader,” Ranger said. “She does such a good job of developing us not only as good players, but even more as good people and good teammates to one another.
“Just seeing how much she’s had to fight not only in her playing years but in her coaching years – in what she’s been through in her life – is inspiration for us.”
To all her girls, she is the engine that can.
Mark Patton’s column appears on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org