Westmont College cashed in the big chip on its shoulder last March when it won its record-setting, fifth-straight Golden State Athletic Conference championship in women’s basketball.
“We weren’t picked to win league in very many of those seasons,” coach Kirsten Moore observed. “For many years, this program didn’t seem to get the respect we thought we’d earned.”
But the Warriors got it in spades this week when the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics dealt them the No. 1 ranking in its preseason poll.
Westmont received 17 of a possible 21 first-place votes for 586 points. It finished 23 points ahead of No. 2 Wayland Baptist, Tex., which received the other four first-place votes.
In the men’s basketball poll, Westmont got 107 points to miss the top 25 by just two spots and eight points.
Moore, who has compiled a win-loss record of 355-122 in 15 seasons at Westmont, addressed her team as soon as the new poll was released.
“My message to them was that it’s nice to have the program in the position where we have respect at that level,” she said. “It’s nice for people to see what we did last year and to also see that we have all but one player back — that we have all the pieces and tools necessary to do great things this year.
“But at the same time, we’re telling them that preseason rankings are obviously just a prediction of what our potential could be. And what that means is, ‘Hey, we have a pretty high standard to meet.’”
Last season began at a low point. The Warriors lost several players including starting forward Sydney Brown, a 6-foot sophomore. Brown, their second-leading scorer (9.7 points per game) and top rebounder (8.8) as a freshman, tore a knee ligament before the season even started.
By the time Claremont-Mudd-Scripps tore the Warriors apart in their opener, 58-39, Westmont’s roster had become both small … and small: It was reduced to just eight players who stood an average of just 5 foot, 5 inches in height.
But Westmont’s Great Eight stood tall by season’s end with a 27-3 record. The Warriors won the GSAC Tournament on their home court and then learned on March 11 that they had been awarded the No. 1 overall seed for the NAIA Tournament.
A day later, they were told that the event had been canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Some years we have had the opportunity to try and make those deep runs,” said Moore, who won the NAIA National championship in 2013. “I think that this team was built for it, even though we were small in numbers and small in stature.
“Our year had prepared us for so many styles of play that we would have seen. We had that fighting spirit that you need to win those big games and be able to turn around and play again the next day.”
They had coalesced in a winning unit by adopting a ball-sharing approach that led to an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.14 — the best recorded by an NAIA team since 2004.
Lauren Tsuneishi, a 5-foot point guard and one of only two seniors on this year’s team (5-4 reserve Taylor Rarick is the other), led the NAIA with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.10. Three teammates were also in the top five: 5-2 junior Krissy Miyahara (3.09, third), 5-5 junior Iyree Jarrett (2.98, fourth), and 5-3 junior Stefanie Berberabe (2.84, fifth).
“Lauren has been our captain since she was thrown into the position as a sophomore,” Moore pointed out. “She was one of only three players that year who weren’t freshmen. It was, ‘Ready or not, you’re a leader,’ and it’s been so great to see her grow and thrive in that role.
“Now she’s a senior and totally equipped and capable of teaching our culture. She’s also an incredible player who’s been underappreciated — although not by us. She’s shown time and again that she’s so capable of impacting the game, and she’s been so clutch and key to who we are.”
Tsuneishi, an NAIA All-American as a sophomore, was left off that list last season despite averaging 11.0 points while shooting 39.5% from the three-point line. She did make the All-GSAC squad, however.
Jarrett, a 5-5 junior, made first-team All-American while leading the Warriors in both scoring (14.1 points) and playmaking (5.1 assists). Berberabe, a 5-3 junior, received All-America honorable mention after averaging 11.9 points and assists (4.4). Maud Ranger, a third-team All-American, was Westmont’s only graduating senior.
Westmont also led the NAIA with its average of 12.4 three-pointers per game. Tsuneishi and Ranger made 96 threes apiece to come within three of the school record — a mark they probably would’ve both broken had the NAIA Tournament not been canceled.
“Selena (Ho-English) has been heading our offense for a while, and she really found something that worked with our personnel,” Moore said of her top assistant coach.
Kaitlin Larson, a 5-11 junior who averaged 9.6 points and 7.4 rebounds, was Westmont’s only starting post player last year. Like Tsuneishi, she was left off last season’s All-America team after making it the previous year.
“It’s so crazy, but with Syd, we have five players coming back who’ve been All-GSAC,” Moore pointed out.
Her team is bigger … and bigger this season. She has a dozen players on the roster and four of them are at least 6-feet tall. They include a pair of freshmen: 6-2 Destiny Okonkwo from Etiwanda High and 6-1 Aleena Cook from Latah, Wash. The other is 6-foot junior Gabriella Stoll, who was Larson’s backup at center last year.
The other two freshmen are 5-5 Kirsten Koehnke, a redshirt from Oregon, and 5-8 Laila Saenz from Idaho.
“I am super-excited about this freshman class,” Moore said. “A lot of the pieces in that class remind me of our current junior class, which is very deep and skilled and brought us new elements like playmaking which we didn’t have before.”
Although the Warriors have been conditioning and drilling, Moore said the “real basketball” won’t start until next week “when we get to play offense and defense.” That is, of course, if they continue to test negative for the coronavirus.
Their schedule has also not yet been determined because of COVID-19.
“There’s no new normal right now,” Moore said, “only the normal of the new.”