With just days before the start of her 18th season as head coach of Westmont women’s basketball, Kirsten Moore looks forward to a greater degree of normalcy in the 2022-23 season and to a season of renewal.
“It is the first year that has felt any semblance of normal since COVID,” remarked Moore. “There are a lot of things we have not been able to do for the last couple of years that we have been able to get back to this season. That has been refreshing.
“We have not been able to do a normal team retreat and haven’t been able to do some of the team building activities we traditionally have done in the preseason. The opportunity to reestablish a lot of those things has been beneficial for this new group coming in and for the returners.
“Our sophomores and juniors have not really had a normal season yet. We really just have two players who have had a normal ability to prepare for a season in the way we like to do so.”
The Warriors have welcomed one of the largest incoming class of athletes in recent years. Four true freshmen and a sophomore join seven returners from last year’s squad.
“With so many new people, we have a renewed commitment to teaching them what it means to be a Warrior,” explained Moore. “We are excited to pass to them the legacy that was left from those who came before them and that they will pass on to those that come after.”
Moore (397-128, .756) has led her teams to two NAIA National Championships (2013 and 2021). On two other occasions, her teams have been national runner-up and a semifinal participant. She has twice been named the NAIA Coach of the Year.
“We have a unique mix on the team this year,” noted Moore. “There is a great core returning. Five members are extremely experienced. They have won a national championship, playing significant roles. Four of five starters from last season are back this year.
Two additional athletes return from last year’s squad which reached the round of 16 in national tournament play.
“We also have five brand new players that are just learning what it means to be a Warrior and compete at a level necessary to win a championship both in the GSAC and at the NAIA level,” said Moore. “So it has been a mix of experience and newness with people coming into this year from two different ends of the spectrum.”
The two players with the most experience are Stefanie Berberabe and Sydney Brown who, as Moore said are the, “first two fifth-year players in the history of our program.
“They have chosen to invest another year in this team, in this program, and in what we are about. I am grateful for them being here. I think it will be a year where they thrive individually, but I also think they can have an exponential impact on the future of this program by choosing to stay.
“The opportunity they have to lead the way in teaching this whole new generation of Warriors coming in is very exciting because they model everything we are about from work ethic to their commitment to putting the team and the team’s success first above their own accolades. I am grateful that they are here and excited for how they can lead our team this year.”
Berberabe is a two-time NAIA First Team All-American, the NAIA Player of the Year in 2020-21, NAIA Tournament MVP in the same year, and a two time All-Golden State Athletic Conference selection, including GSAC Player of the Year in 2021-22.
The 5-4 guard has dazzled fans of the Warriors and their opponents alike throughout her career with her ballhandling ability as well as her ability to score and create scoring opportunities for her teammates. She led the team in scoring, averaging 15.5 points per game, and led the GSAC in both assists (5.6 per game) and assists-to-turnover ratio (3.4).
This past summer, Berberabe had the opportunity to play for the Philippine National Team.
“It was a great opportunity for Stef to compete for the Philippine National Team this summer in international FIBA competition, and to have won gold there. She had to navigate the challenges that came with that – learning a new system, a language barrier, meeting new people and finding a role on a new team. I am proud of her and how she made her way.
“I am not surprised at all because her mentality is, ‘Whatever the team needs, I am willing to do.’ She was willing to do whatever role that team needed to help them win, and win they did. That was really exciting and it can only boost her confidence as she comes back and her ability to lead us this year.
“It is exciting to see the confidence that Stef has built in her four years and I think that confidence will take an even bigger step in her fifth year,” predicted Moore. “She has grown so much as a human, first of all, and as a basketball player as well.”
Brown, a 6-foot forward, ranks third in Westmont career record book for rebounds per game at 7.9, which is the same rate at which she retrieved errant shots last season. She also ranks sixth in career blocks, averaging 0.8 per game. Last season, Brown led all inside players in scoring, averaging 8.2 points per game.
“I am grateful to have Sydney back for a fifth year,” expressed Moore. “The amount of experience that she brings, the leadership with her voice, and the commitment to who we are as Warriors is huge. She has taken initiative as a leader to get all the newcomers organized and understanding what we are doing.
“I have seen tremendous growth in Sydney through the work she has put in over the summer and with another year of experience. I am excited for the impact she can have. She has consistently been our best rebounder and has the ability to score both inside and outside. She plays with a high IQ.
“She wants to get into coaching and is studying the game more than ever. She is spending time with the coaches in film and I am excited to see that all come together on the court.”
Brown and Berberabe, along with 5-8 junior guard Laila Saenz, serve as this year’s team captains. While a member of the junior class, Saenz was unable to play her freshman year as she recovered from surgery, so she will compete this season as a red-shirt sophomore.
“I am excited for the role Laila can play this year,” expressed Moore. “She was GSAC Freshman of the Year last year and has already navigated so much adversity with injury in her time here. Last season did not end the way we wanted in large part because Laila sustained an injury in the GSAC Tournament championship game. I am really proud of her resiliency to fight and rehab and get back to full speed, which she is.
“She is ready to go and I think she is going to have a great year with the confidence of having a year under her belt. She is ready to step into that leadership role. Her teammates voted for her as captain and I am excited to see her blossom in that way this year.”
Saenz averaged 11.6 points per game and led the team in 3-point field goals by making 3.2 per game.
“Everyone can look at the stats from last year and see that Laila was one of the best 3-point shooters in the country,” said Moore. “Actually, she was always a point guard before that. So, she has the ability to be a playmaker as well. With Iyree Jarrett, who carried a huge part of that load for us, having graduated, I think Laila is not only going to be able to knock down shots, but also be able to create for people around her.”
Two additional members of the junior class are 5-11 forwards Destiny Okonkwo and Aleena Cook.
“I am excited for Destiny and Aleena to step into playmaking roles for us,” reflected Moore. “They both have the opportunity to impact the game on both ends of the floor.
“Destiny anchors our defense. I am hoping that her ability to have a presence on both ends of the floor makes a huge impact. I think she is ready to own that a little more this year. She has been playing like it in practice.”
Okonkwo, who started 20 games last season, averaged 5.8 points and 5.8 rebounds per game for the Warriors.
“Destiny is as physical and strong as it gets,” added Moore. “With her growing confidence is going to come a whole different level of presence inside for us.
“I think Aleena is a completely different player this year. I am so excited to see what she can contribute on the floor. She has put in the work to have an incredible first year as an upperclassman. She will make a difference on both ends of the floor and on the boards too.
“Aleena has always been a really good midrange player for us. This summer she got exponentially stronger in the weight room. She is finishing at the rim better than anyone on the team right now. I think she is going to be able to be both an inside and outside threat. Using that athleticism and physicality that she has on the defensive end can really make a difference.”
Cook averaged 5.6 points and 4.2 rebounds per game while playing an average of 15.4 minutes per game.
Also returning are two 5-7 sophomore guards – Hailey Dermer and Giulia Abraham. Dermer played in 18 games last year averaging 13.6 minutes and 3.7 points per contest. Abraham saw limited action (just three games) due to injury.
“I think there is a big opportunity for Hailey, who now has a year of experience,” offered Moore. “We have a big need for guards to come in ready to step up and fill roles. We saw glimpses of her abilities last year as she was learning everything.
“She loves the game, works hard at it and can shoot the ball. She has good feel on the court as a passer. We are hopeful that as we get into games that she can have a role where she is making an impact out there.
“Giulia is a natural vocal leader. It has been great to have her voice. Last year, she was not able to get out on the court, but she found a way to contribute with that voice. Now, she gets to have that voice and be out there scrapping on the floor. She can shoot and has a huge passion for the game. I am looking forward to seeing how that develops this year.”
Sophomore transfer Kate Goostrey joins the team this season, coming to the Warriors via Citrus College. The 5-10 guard led the Owls in scoring last season, averaging 19.8 points per game.
“There were a lot of unexpected things that led to Kate being able to be here at Westmont,” said Moore. “From both our end and her end, we feel like it was God working that she is a Westmont Warrior. She fits us so well. She is a natural leader that has incredible toughness and work ethic. She is a student-athlete to the extreme with excellence in both.
“I am excited about who she is because she fits us so well. She is catching on very quickly to what it means to be a Warrior, how that looks on the court, and how to implement that into everything she is doing. I am excited to see the impact she could make.”
The four freshmen joining the team this season are 6-4 forward Paula Graichen from Munich, Germany; 5-10 guard Sage Kramer from Philomath, Oregon; and 5-4 guards Bailey Fong from Foster City and Isabella Pearson from Hacienda Heights.
“We haven’t had this large of a freshman class since Stef and Syd were freshmen themselves five years ago,” noted Moore. “As always, there is going to be a huge learning curve for our newcomers, but I am excited for them to come in and have these great models to look up to and teach them. They are a very talented class.
“We are excited to have Paula here. In my time here, we have not coached her length inside. She has an agile skill set, having played in Europe. She is more of a typical European post player that learned to play facing the basket. She has a lot of aspects to her game and we are looking forward to seeing how that adds value to the team.
“Sage Kramer is a guard from Oregon, but has the ability to play a lot of positions. She played at a small school in Oregon where she fulfilled a lot of different roles while leading her team to a state championship. She also won multiple championships in track and field. She is an incredible athlete who has found ways to succeed at a high level.
“Sage is a great shooter who can score inside and outside. She is a lot bigger guard than we have ever had. It’s an exciting dynamic with her length on the perimeter. I think her ability to rebound at the guard position will be key.
“Bella and Bailey are more like the traditional guards we have had recently. They are small and feisty and quick. They can both shoot the ball well and play with a high IQ. We are trying to teach them our system and hoping they can come in and help us. They have a great guard in Stef to learn from who is built the same. They are eager to grow and learn and contribute. As they are learning our system, we are hoping they can rely on their ability to put the ball in the basket.
Moore and assistant coach Jana Pearson have put together a challenging non-conference schedule for the Warriors.
Westmont, who enters the season as the second-ranked team in the NAIA, will play four games in eight days, starting this Saturday when they travel to Idaho to take on #22 Lewis-Clark State. The following day, Westmont will take on the Cougars of Washington State in an exhibition.
“Washington State finished second in the PAC-12 last year and is receiving top-25 consideration this year,” noted Moore of the NCAA Division I school. “I appreciate the opportunity to challenge ourselves at that level.”
On Wednesday, November 2, Westmont will host Bushnell (Ore.) in the Warriors’ home opener. Tip-off is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Also coming from out of state to take on the Warriors are Xavier (La.), who defeated Westmont in the 2014 National Tournament, and Southern Oregon, who was an NAIA Tournament qualifier last year.
The Warriors are also scheduled to play two NCAA Division II opponents this season in exhibition contests. Games against Azusa Pacific and Cal Poly Pomona will give Warrior fans a preview of next year when Westmont begins playing a Division II schedule.
The Westmont Holiday Classic makes a return to the schedule with Westmont taking on #6 Southeastern (Fla.) on Thursday, December 29 and Health Sciences & Pharmacy (Mo.) the following day.
GSAC play begins on Thursday, Nov. 17 when the Warriors will take on the Firestorm of Arizona Christian at 5:30 p.m. Westmont will play five GSAC games before Christmas including home games against Ottawa on November 19 and Vanguard on December 10.
“There has been a great rivalry with #19 Vanguard and #18 The Master’s over the years,” said Moore of the upcoming conference season. “Menlo has everyone back and has some good new players. Arizona Christian has strong players back. If you look at the GSAC Preseason Poll, there are a lot of teams ready to make a run and win a conference championship.”
The Coaches’ Poll reflects the challenge that the GSAC season presents. Four different teams received first place votes. Westmont was picked to finish first, followed by Vanguard, The Master’s, Hope International, Menlo, Arizona Christian, William Jessup, Ottawa (Ariz.), San Diego Christian and Life Pacific.
At season’s end, the top-six finishers in the GSAC standings will receive invitations to participate in the GSAC Tournament, which will be held February 23-25 at Menlo in Atherton. The NAIA Tournament begins with the first and second round on March 7-8 at a location to be determined. The final four rounds of the tournament will take place in Sioux City, Iowa, March 13-18. Westmont has qualified for the national tournament in 15 of the last 16 years, including the last 12 seasons.
“I would love to finish strong,” said Moore in reference to the national championship. “I have loved playing and being a part of the NAIA. Our teams have had life-changing experiences at the NAIA National Tournament. I really want the opportunity for our players to earn the right to play in the tournament again this year and see what can happen. There are a lot of things that have to happen between now and then to put us in a position to earn that right, but that is definitely the hope. The vision would be to finish well in our final year in the NAIA.”
Ron Smith is the sports information director at Westmont College.