If a highlight video of the California University women’s basketball season is made, there are a couple of titles that would be fitting, perhaps none better than “What Could Have Been.”
There was no secret that this was supposed to be a big season for the Vulcans. Expectations were high from the start. The Vulcans were deeper and more talented than their NCAA Division II national championship team of two years ago.
For 15 incredible weeks, California played with machine-like precision. Playing a difficult schedule, the Vulcans went 26-2 with their only losses coming at Edinboro – where Cal always seems to lose – and at Mercyhurst in a six-point game.
Cal won the PSAC’s West Division title and was ranked as high as No. 3 in the nation.
Entering the conference tournament, the Vulcans were confident and playing their best basketball of the season. Then, without warning, the season busted apart at the seams with an unthinkable string of season-ending injuries.
First, on the eve of Cal’s quarterfinal game against Edinboro, senior forward Lana Doran, the Vulcans’ best defender, went down in practice with an knee injury. Doran had missed all of last season with a knee injury. This injury was to her other knee. Doran’s season was over.
Then, against Edinboro, senior point guard Miki Glenn, a 2,000-point scorer, the PSAC West Player of the Year and one of the best players in Division II, landed awkardly while attempting to secure a rebound. Glenn fell to the court and grabbed her knee in pain as her teammates held their breath. Glenn would not play again.
Like Doran, Glenn was a starter on Cal’s national title team.
Three days later in the PSAC tournament semifinals against East Stroudsburg, sophomore guard Morgan Jennings, a key reserve, injured her knee and was carried off the court. She would not play again.
Many college basketball teams do not have three significant knee injuries in five years. California had three in five days, each to a key player.
Somehow, the Vulcans managed to advance to the PSAC tournament championship game before losing to Indiana, an opponent that a healthy California squad defeated by 27 and 16 points during the regular season.
“I think we had one day when we felt sorry for ourselves. Then we rallied together and said it’s not going to change so we have two options: either we give up or quit or we fight,” Cal head coach Jess Strom said.
The Vulcans, playing with a patchwork lineup, scratched out two victories in the NCAA tournament, defeating a quick Glenville State team and Mercyhurst before running out of miracles and losing Monday night to defending regional champion Virginia Union.
The injury-riddled Vulcans fell one victory shy of the Elite Eight, which will be held next week in Columbus, Ohio.
Strom could have used the injuries as an excuse for the loss and nobody would have criticized her. Strom, however, offered no excuses and preferred to talk about the Vulcans’ missed free throws, mental lapses and poor transition defense.
There is, however, no denying that those who saw Cal play at full strength are wondering what could have been if the Vulcans stayed healthy.
“Nobody thought we could win a game without Miki,” Strom said. “She had played every minute for four years. So there was a lot of unknowns when she went out, but I think they responded well, the best they possibly could.”
In the postseason, several players who had nothing more than casual roles suddenly were getting significant playing time and thriving. Freshman Gina Vallecorsa, who averaged six minutes per game during the regular season, played 20 strong minutes in the win over Mercyhurst.
Then there was guard Bailey Cooper, a freshman from Ringgold who had played only two games all season – none since Dec. 3 – and all she did was score 13 points against Glenville State and 14 against Mercyhurst.
“More than basketball, I think they realized something about themselves,” Strom said. “They’re fighters. They can be put in a situation they’re not comfortable with and succeed. I’m really happy with how they responded.”
With starters Seairra Barrett, Shatara Parsons and Abbey Sporio returning along with Jennings and several other key reserves, and the freshmen having gained valuable postseason experience, don’t expect a big dropoff for Cal next season. Even without Glenn, there is plenty of talent on the roster.
“I think trhey’re going to do just fine,” Glenn said. “They want to learn. They know what kind of success we’ve had.”
Sports editor Chris Dugan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.