DII women's basketball: Team unity helps California Baptist women's basketball achieve at high level
Before the season started, when goals were being set, the players on California Baptist women’s basketball team came up with an amusing one: The Lancers wanted to top last year’s program record of 21 straight victories.
“You lose at the wrong time,” said California Baptist coach Jarrod Olson, “you have no shot at it.”
But Olson knew he had a group of seniors who have worked hard from day one they stepped on campus in Riverside, California.
As freshmen, the Lancers went 16-12. One of those players was guard Cassidy Mihalko, a native of Franklin, Wisconsin.
Of course, she joked, the weather and a beach right around the corner, played a small role in her decision to leave the upper Midwest for sunny California.
The atmosphere at California Baptist and the women’s basketball program were a more important factor. It helped her grow both on and off the court.
As Olson put it, Mihalko went from a player he didn’t think could score a point alone in the gym to one who last week went over the 2,000-point milestone.
“The hallmark of our team is a good work ethic,” Olson said. “Cassidy is a great example. She is a completely different player than she was as a freshman and so is everybody else on our team. It is a collective attitude of we are going to put the work in.”
As sophomores, Mihalko, Kamille Diaz, Erin Asher, Olivia Weber and Courtney Nelson all experienced a late-season run that led to the Lancers playing in the Division II national championship game despite having six losses going into the NCAA tournament.
“It was kind of surreal,” Mihalko said. “Nobody really expected it except for us. Honestly, it wasn’t our end focus at the beginning of the season. We kept winning games. We played our best at the right time at the end of the season. And we went all the way. It was a fun experience.”
Last season, the Lancers didn’t go as far in the NCAA tournament, but they finished 29-3 and won 21 straight.
The seniors are motivated to do more this year. That motivation led to two special moments last week. On Jan. 30, Mihalko went over 2,000 points and the team celebrated with her.
“It was interesting to reflect back how far Cassidy has come since her freshman year,” Olson said. “It was neat for me to see how excited her teammates were for her, and also how appreciative Cassidy was of her teammates who helped her achieve that. About 1,800 of those points came off of Kamille’s passes.”
Mihalko was very appreciative of the way her teammates celebrated her achievement.
RELATED: WBCA Top 25 rankings
“We are all very humble on the team. I was showing how grateful I am for my teammates,” Mihalko said. “I took it as everybody working hard as a collective team. I do score a lot of my points off assists and other people getting rebounds and throwing it to me in transition. It was rewarding as a group. I think we all saw it as just how far we came as a team.”
It is that team unity that helped the Lancers achieve another nice moment on Saturday. They won their 21st straight game. They will go for the program record on Feb. 11. For the season, California Baptist is 24-2 overall, 15-0 in the PacWest Conference and ranked No. 7 in the WBCA top 25.
“The neat thing about our team is nobody thinks they are too awesome,” Olson said. “There are a lot of really talented players on our team. It would be hard for somebody on our team to get a big head.”
For Mihalko, the experience as a student-athlete on and off the court at California Baptist has been wonderful.
“I just love the school,” she said. “Everybody is supportive. You see the teachers and faculty at games. We are one big family.
“One of the things I found to be special the past couple of years is that we can walk with God and use that as a driving force in athletics, academics and everything in your relationships around the school. It all revolves around that. It is great to be able to do that here.”
Lincoln Memorial women’s basketball team having a great season
When Lincoln Memorial women’s basketball coach Krystal Evans took over the program in the 2014-15 season, she knew she was coming into a good situation that went beyond the 16-11 record the team had the year before.
Her reason dealt more with trust. The previous coach, Roger Hodge believed in the players he left behind. Hodge once coached with Evans’ father and also coached Evans her freshman year.
“He called me and said, ‘Krystal, I really feel this team is special,’” Evans said. “He left to be closer to his family. He felt I could build something special. He said, ‘I really want you to be interested in it. I got good players here. I feel like the future is bright.’
“I know Hodge loves my family and loves me and has my best interest at heart. There wasn’t a moment of doubt.”
Indeed. Lincoln Memorial, after going 17-12 last year, is 20-1 and ranked No. 5 in the WBCA top 25.
One of those players helping Lincoln Memorial have the type of season that could lead to a NCAA tournament berth is senior forward Megan Pittman. A year ago, she averaged 11.9 points and 10 rebounds. She is even better this season, averaging 16.4 points and 10.4 rebounds.
In her three seasons at Lincoln Memorial, Pittman is thrilled to see the progress of the team.
“It is just awesome,” Pittman said. “Each day you see everybody come in and put forth their best effort.
“Last year we made it further than we ever had. We got to taste what it was like to get to the SAC tournament, and I think that carried us into the summer and preseason workouts. It motivated for us this year.”
Pittman, Evans said, is one of many examples on the team of players battling for rebounds.
“Rebounding is definitely the main focus on our team,” Evans said. “To have a player like Megan who definitely sacrifices her body every day to accomplish those goals means a lot. She has some great counterparts as well with Josey Harding, Gerda Paulauskaite, Sydnie Anderson and Shea Coker. They all do a great job on the boards. We are very fortunate to have those players.”
Evans said team chemistry is another reason Lincoln Memorial is having a solid season.
“We have always had talent each year,” Evans said. “I feel this year the chemistry is better than it has been here. They definitely love each other. It is genuine. The work ethic is there. I don’t have any problems on or off the court. I feel that has made the biggest difference.”
Lincoln Memorial suffered its first loss on Saturday, falling by two points to Wingate. Earlier in the season, Lincoln Memorial won 84-83 in double overtime at Wingate. It was a big moment for the Railsplitters, who lost three overtime games a year ago.
“We kept coming so close,” Evans said. “We were in every game and competitive. We had to take some hard losses. The girls got sick of feeling that. You get so close, you almost rather lose by 20. They got irritated enough that this year they have a different mentality.”
The focus for Lincoln Memorial for the rest of February is to concentrate on the game at hand and not worry about postseason possibilities, but they understand what lurks in March.
“It is exciting,” Pittman said. “It is definitely something to look forward to. But right now, we are taking it one game at a time.”