DII Basketball: Western Washington's success is Taylor made
Western Washington is one of a handful of Division II basketball programs that have both their men’s and women’s basketball teams adorning the national rankings. They are the only program, however, to be led by a duo of Taylors.
Senior point guard Taylor Peacocke is currently leading all of DII women’s basketball in scoring, averaging 22.9 points a contest. She is the leader of a team full of seniors, and thus a team with lofty expectations.
“With four returning starters and six total seniors who have all competed in the NCAA tournament, I think there's definitely an expectation to get back [there] once again,” Peacocke said. “We all expect big things from each other, and we aren't going to let our talents and our season slip out of our hands this year. We all know what it takes to get there.”
Peacocke has been on tear of late during the Vikings’ nine-game winning streak. This past week, she scored a total of 68 points, highlighted by a career-best 41-point performance against Simon Fraser. She earned not only Great Northwest Athletic Conference Player of the Week honors, but also the National Player of the Week Award as well.
“I think as a senior everything just has a different feel from the moment you get back from summer break,” Peacocke said. “There [are] so many thoughts about how ‘this is it, this is your last ride,’ and it's given me so much motivation and passion to really go out and make the best of every practice and every game. I think there's no other explanation than passion, desire, and a pure love for the game that's pushing me to have such a great senior season.”
Peacocke has been prolific in many aspects of her game. She is shooting an impressive 45 percent behind the 3-point line, and converting 85 percent of her 128 free-throw attempts.
“I am comfortable behind the 3-point line but I'm also an aggressive player who can get to the basket and finish through contact,” Peacocke said. “My first few years here I was mostly a driver and pull-up shooter, but I worked really hard last summer to become a threat from behind the arc with the ability to pull up for deep shots in transition and pull back quickly off ball-screens to add another dynamic to my game.”
One of those people she worked closely with was Taylor Stafford. Unlike Peacocke who is playing her fourth season with WWU, Stafford is amid his first.
“Taylor Stafford and I became very close friends when he came to Western last season,” Peacocke said. “During the spring we put in a lot of work together and pushed one another to better both of our games. We became roommates during the summer and worked out nearly every day together. He would make up the basketball drills and I would come up with our cardio for the day.”
“Taylor [Peacocke] is definitely one of the reasons I am having success this year,” Stafford said. “She doesn't know this, but she pushed me to be a better player. I knew she was in the gym and it motivated me. I could never thank her enough.”
Stafford — who is 20th in DII with 21.3 points per contest — entered a situation opposite of Peacocke. WWU’s men’s team had a mere two starters returning. Stafford teamed with Jeffrey Parker as the lone seniors on the roster.
“We had a good group of players returning with some redshirts and transfers,” Stafford said. “We knew from the first day of practice that we would have to stick together and play as a team. Our camaraderie, that is why we are a competitive team. We knew it would be a special season because we all enjoyed being around one another and our team’s talent level.”
Prior to his time at WWU, Stafford was a two-time All-American on the JUCO level, and also saw time in Division I. The lessons at each level have made the transition to DII appear seamless.
“I definitely think lessons I learned at the other levels helped,” Stafford said. “I developed a lot of confidence during my time at Eastern Arizona. At [DI] Evansville, I learned so much about basketball, how to get open and fundamental skills, but also, the mental aspect of the game. My grind also helped. I worked hard this summer and my redshirt year. Putting those hours in the gym and the weight room definitely helped.”
Despite consecutive 20-win seasons two years ago, the men’s team has not reached the NCAA postseason since the 2012-13 season. Last year’s 16-15 record was disappointing, but Stafford used it as motivation. He knew this team — just four years removed from a National Championship — should be on everyone’s radar. Sitting at 17-3 and No. 15 in the rankings has put them there.
“Getting national attention for me and my team was definitely motivating,” Stafford said. “I was an underdog my whole life. I wanted to prove to everyone that I am one of the best players in the country and my team is as well. All the motivation I needed — and ultimately my team needed — was to place us as underdogs.”
Both Peacocke and Stafford are focused on the present. With the men atop the GNAC and the women hot on the tail of the reigning national runner-up Alaska-Anchorage, both teams are poised to return to the NCAA tournament.
It’s not the many points or awards that matter, but getting both of their programs back to the top.
“We're never satisfied with where we're at,” Peacocke said. “Keeping that constant hunger to get better every day is going to help us keep that momentum going. We always look forward to the big games like Anchorage, but right now we're really focusing on the next game in front of us. We're learning what we still need to improve on even from the last nine wins, and making those changes and correcting the flaws are what's going to keep us rolling.”