CALIFORNIA – There are easier ways for an NCAA Division II women’s basketball team to begin the season than the path California University has scheduled for itself.
The Vulcans played exhibition games against Penn State and Duquesne, two Division I programs that are expected to contend for conference championships, and the results were predictable. California lost lopsided games.
California, which graduated its top two scorers, Amy Johns and Danielle Luckett, from last year’s 17-10 team, opened the regular season Tuesday night against Fairmont State, the preseason favorite in the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
What happened to opening the season with an easy win, against Our Lady of Consecutive Defeats or the local welding school?
“That’s not our style,” said Jess Strom, who is in her first full year as Cal’s coach after taking over on an interim basis early last season. “Our mentality here is completely different. We want to play the best.”
If Fairmont State is indeed the best team in the WVIAC, then California made a good first impression, one that will force people throughout the PSAC and region to take notice.
California forged an early 14-point lead, withstood a second half charge by Fairmont State and then pulled away late for an 82-57 victory at Hamer Hall.
It was quite an impressive start for Cal, which missed the NCAA tournament last year for the first time since 2001 and was picked last month to finish fourth in the PSAC’s West Division. Many people expected this to be a rebuilding year for the Vulcans. While Cal began the night with many questions, most of those were answered positively and authoritatively.
“We have a theme for every game,” Strom said, “and tonight it was ‘Make a Statement.’ The kids have been working hard and they felt like everyone was overlooking them, and rightfully so. We lost our two leading scorers from last year.”
There might be some believers in the Cal camp today. The Vulcans overwhelmed Fairmont State (1-2) early, forging a 15-1 lead. The Falcons missed their first nine shots from the field, shot only 27 percent in the first half and trailed by as many as 17 points before halftime.
With Cal’s starting lineup of Stephanie Michael, Chelsea McKnight, Kate Seebohm, Irina Kukolj and Elena Antonenko combining to average only 19.4 points per game last year, there was the obvious question of where would the Vulcans find their points? On this night, the answer was everywhere.
Four Cal players finished in double figures. Emma Mahady and Ashley Hines didn’t start the game, but each scored a team-high 18 points. Kukolj had 12 points despite playing only 16 minutes because of foul trouble, and Antonenko scored 10 points.
The Vulcans might not have anyone who can match the point production that Johns (18.5 per game) contributed last season, but Strom believes the Vulcans will be tougher to guard.
“I love this scoresheet,” Strom said, pointing to her team’s point totals. “With the way we play, we don’t have a go-to player. Honestly, I like it that way. Last year, we stood around too much and watched two players do a lot of the work on offense. That’s not the case this year.”
Fairmont State has a go-to player in senior guard Kaitlin Snyder, the WVIAC’s Preseason Player of the Year. The Vulcans held her to 3-for-10 shooting and 10 points. Snyder’s drives to the basket, which led to six assists, did help the Falcons mount a charge in the second half. Fairmont State pulled to within 52-45 with 11:08 remaining, but Cal responded with an 8-0 run – getting baskets from four different players – and the Falcons never threatened again.
“We went into the game thinking we were underestimated, being ranked fourth in the PSAC West,” said Michael, a senior guard who scored seven points and had three assists. “Our thought is, they can go ahead and think that way. Our hard work is going to beat some teams with more talent.”
While it was just one game and one win, the Vulcans know a victory over a highly regarded team like Fairmont State might come in handy in March, when the NCAA tournament field is selected.
“Last year, I went to the beach during spring break and hated it,” Michael said. “If you’re a basketball player and you go to the beach in the spring, then you didn’t accomplish any of your goals. I don’t want to go to the beach again this spring.”
The path won’t get any easier for Cal. The Vulcans’ next game is Saturday at home (2 p.m.) against Glenville State, a perennial NCAA tournament team that already has beaten Edinboro, which is favored to win its third consecutive PSAC championship.
The game was moved to Hamer Hall so that the Cal women’s volleyball team could host Clarion at the Convocation Center in the first round of the PSAC tournament. … Hines, a junior college transfer from Potomac State, had a double-double with 13 rebounds. … Hailey Garrett led Fairmont State with 16 points, which included a 10-for-14 night at the free-throw line.