Chris Dugan's Sports Column
Cal ahead of schedule
One weekend of tension-filled games has significantly changed the outlook of the California University women’s basketball program.
When the 2012-13 season began, Cal was considered to be in a rebuilding phase. A spot in the NCAA Division II tournament was supposed to be a pipedream. A return to the national tournament was supposed to happen – next season.
And for much of this year, the Vulcans appeared to be right on schedule. Cal finished fourth in the rugged PSAC West Division, which is about what was expected. But a February upset of division winner Gannon, which was ranked No. 6 in the nation at the time, kicked the Vulcans’ rebuilding project into high gear.
The win, along with a regular-season victory over a solid Millersville team helped Cal return to the NCAA tournament following a one-year absence, getting the final at-large berth in the Atlantic Regional. The Vulcans then stunned second-seeded Edinboro and sixth-seeded Glenville State, the latter the highest-scoring team in Division II, to reach the regional final and national Sweet 16.
After averaging 80.5 points in their first two tournament wins, Cal lost a 50-47 defensive struggle Monday to top-seeded Gannon on the Golden Knights’ home court.
The team that wasn’t supposed to be good enough to make the NCAA tournament came within a couple of baskets of the Elite Eight.
“At the beginning of the season, nobody thought we were going to make it to the NCAA tournament, much less the regional final,” Cal coach Jess Strom said. “We had lost the top two scorers from last year’s team, but this team has shown what can be accomplished when you have a group of players who buy into what the coaches are telling them and they believe in themselves. When that happens, you can go a long way.”
Cal was undersized and dressed only eight players for the NCAA tournament, but seven of those are underclassmen, which is a good nucleus to start with next season. If the Vulcans can recruit a couple of post players to add size and depth, and find an outside scoring threat to replace senior Stephanie Michael (14.2 points per game), Cal might be making another trip to Erie, the site of next year’s Elite Eight.
Strom, however, is concerned about replacing Michael, one of only two players in program history to make more than 200 career three-pointers. It’s not losing Michael’s scoring touch that has Strom alarmed, it’s what the senior guard provides that is not found on the statistics sheet that will be missed.
“You can say that we’re not losing too much, but look at who we’re losing,” Strom said. “Stephanie Michael means more to this team than anyone on the outside can see. The way we play is an extension of her and her leadership. That will be difficult to replace.”
Strom deserves much credit for Cal’s resurgence. She has brought much-needed stability to the coaching situation. Strom became the Vulcans’ fourth head coach in five years when she was promoted early last season from assistant to interim head coach, replacing Mark Swasey, during an awkward coaching change. The interim tag was removed last summer from Strom’s title.
• With this considered the most wide-open NCAA basketball tournament in decades, you might be tempted to enter a few more “brackets” in office pools than in the past. With no clear-cut favorite in this year’s tournament, conventional wisdom is that even the casual college basketball fan has a chance to take home the first-place money.
That’s not true.
We all know your office pool will be won by the secretary who doesn’t watch basketball but picks the winners based on the school’s nickname, uniform colors or conferences and refers to Gonzaga as “Gonzalez.” I’m convinced this is one of those unwritten rules that you hear about in sports.
• Did you have the Dominican Republic in your World Baseball Classic bracket pool?
• Gerrit Cole, the Pirates’ prized pitching prospect, won’t be on the opening day roster. He was optioned to Class AAA Indianapolis this week.
Pirates general manager Neil Huntington told the media at spring training that Cole will begin the year at Class AAA Indianapolis because, “in our minds, he’s not ready to compete and be successful at the major league level.”
Don’t believe that reasoning. Leaving Cole off the roster has nothing to do with his ability and everything to do with arbitration and free agency. By starting Cole in the minors and delaying his major-league debut until June, the Pirates push back his arbitration and free-agent eligibility by a year, which will be financially advantageous to the team.
Such a move makes you wonder (again) if the Pirates are serious about winning.
Sports editor Chris Dugan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.