Westmont College will restart its women’s basketball season today when it plays host to Azusa Pacific for a 3 p.m. game.
“It does feel like a new season, for sure,” coach Kirsten Moore said. “It’s been so long since we’ve been on the court.
“How does it feel? Everything feels different about this year. Nothing about it feels normal to us. But we’re going to try to put that out of our minds and try to make new norms and work within the parameters. We have to challenge ourselves to be as ready as we possibly can.”
The Warriors, ranked No. 1 in the NAIA’s national preseason poll, have been sidelined for five weeks by the COVID-19 pandemic. They last took the court on Dec. 12 for an exhibition game that it lost at Long Beach State, 70-59. They took another Big West Conference school into overtime on Dec. 9, losing a 91-78 exhibition at UC Irvine.
Westmont’s only regular-season game was a 68-56 loss on Dec. 5 at Pepperdine — another NCAA Division 1 school. Azusa Pacific, a former Golden State Athletic Conference rival of the Warriors, is now an NCAA Division 2 school.
“My hope is that playing really high-level opponents is preparing us for our pod in the GSAC, which is going to be really strong,” Moore said. “If we get an opportunity to play in the national tournament, I want us to be prepared even if the number of games we play this year is significantly less than normal.”
Westmont’s three-team pod will include Hope International and Vanguard — the only other GSAC schools that conduct regular COVID-19 testing.
The Warriors will play host to Hope on Feb. 2, and then travel to play the Fullerton school on Feb. 5 and 6. They will also travel to Costa Mesa to play Vanguard on Feb. 16, with Vanguard returning the trip on Feb. 19 and 20.
The league’s other six, non-testing schools will play each other in another pod.
The GSAC is looking into the possibility of having the winner of that pod begin COVID testing and then play the first-place team from Westmont’s pod, with the winner earning the GSAC’s automatic berth in the NAIA Tournament.
The national tournament will hold its opening rounds on March 12 and 13 before moving to Sioux City, Iowa for the final rounds from March 18-23.
The Warriors, 27-3 last year, were seeded No. 1 for the 2020 NAIA Tournament when the outbreak of the coronavirus forced cancelation of the event. Westmont returns all but one player from that squad while also getting back 6-foot sophomore Sydney Brown, a starting forward from 2018-19 who missed all of last season with a knee injury.
Moore, who has compiled a record of 355-123 during her 16 seasons as head coach, expects the Warriors to be rusty after just returning to the practice court.
“We aren’t anywhere near polished or ready as we normally would be at this point of the year,” she said. “We would have played 15 games by this time.
“It’ll be interesting to see where we are coming into this game. I am looking forward to getting a kind of good measurement.”
Westmont does have an experienced squad led by NAIA All-America guards Iyree Jarrett and Stefanie Berberabe. Guard Lauren Tsuneishi and forward Kaitlin Larson are also returning veterans with All-GSAC accolades.
Moore is also no stranger to challenging situations. She guided the Warriors to the 2013 NAIA national championship less than a year after the unexpected death of her husband, Alex, and the birth of her daughter, Alexis. She also took Westmont to the 2018 NAIA championship game after having been displaced from campus by the Montecito debris flow.
“We’ve been trying to remind ourselves of that, of just trying to be creative problem-solvers and to not make excuses based on circumstances and to stay true to the things that have helped us be successful in the past regardless of adversity,” Moore said. “But it’s not easy. It’s a really challenging time right now, no doubt.”
Azusa will be making its season debut today. The Cougars are coached by T.J. Hardeman, a Westmont alum who played for the Warriors from 1974-78. Azusa has posted a win-loss record of 315-103 during his 12 seasons as coach.
“They’re a very good D2 team that always competes to win their league,” Moore said. “We always have a good battle with them. We have respect for each other’s programs.
“Three generations of Hardemans have played at Westmont on both the men’s and women’s sides, and it’s a great opportunity to be able to play them now.”