2011-12 Pacific Women's Basketball Preview
"I think this year is going to be a breakout year for us," head coach Lynne Roberts said, as she prepared for the 2011-12 Pacific Tigers basketball season. Roberts' sixth season at the helm of the Pacific program features the deepest and most athletic roster to date as the Tigers look to pounce in 2011-12.
"We finally have legitimate depth," Roberts explained. "Of our personnel, everyone is very versatile. Of the 13 players on the team, there's not one I can say 'well, she's probably not going to play this year.' We have legitimate depth this year."
A number of injuries shortened the roster last season, and forced a lineup of freshmen and sophomores, who gathered valuable experience, soldiered through adversity and ended the season with a high note.
"We had our backs to the wall, with a road game at Cal State Northridge, and we played really well and won a game to get into the Big West Tournament," Roberts recalled. "Then we went to the Big West tournament, playing at UC Santa Barbara for the quarterfinals. It wasn't a pretty game, but we just made it ugly by playing great defensively. With the comeback, it was Pacific's first win at Santa Barbara since 1987."
The Tigers erased a 14-point second-half deficit to rally for a 49-45 win at the Thunderdome as the seventh-seeded Tigers knocked off the regular season co-champion and second-seeded Gauchos to advance to Anaheim.
"Then we went on to Anaheim and the Honda Center to play a very good Cal Poly team. We played the two regular season co-champions back-to-back. Unfortunately, Gena Johnson, who was probably our best scorer at the time, broke her hand in the Santa Barbara game, so we didn't have her. I think it would have been a little closer down the stretch."
The Tigers fell to Cal Poly to cap a 9-22 season, but the journey added not only added experience at the Division I level for the young Tigers, but added a motivation to return to the Honda Center in 2012 and advance further.
"Last season I thought we finished well. We had a lot of talent, but we were really young. We had a few injuries to our upper classmen, so we really had to rely on our freshmen and sophomores to contribute. And with youth comes inconsistency. We were great some nights, quite the opposite other nights. I thought we had some huge wins, beating some of the top teams in the conference, but other games if we had brought that same level, we would have had different outcomes."
"All season, the goal was to make it to the Honda Center in Anaheim: make the semifinals of the Big West and see where we could go from there. The road we took wasn't exactly how we envisioned getting there, but at the end of the day, we got there. We finished strong and that gives us some momentum headed into the offseason."
In the offseason, six returning players immediately began the regime of refining their game for a run in 2011-12, looking to build upon the lessons of last season.
Senior Christina Thompson (Sacamento, Calif.) is the lone fourth year player for the Tigers in 2011-12. The 2010 Big West Sixth Woman of the Year enters her final season along side returning starters Kendall Rodriguez (La Habra, Calif.), Erica McKenzie (Sparks, Nevada) and Gena Johnson (Elk Grove, Calif.).
Johnson emerged down the stretch as a capable scorer, with 11.8 points per game in Big West play. Her performance earned her Big West Honorable Mention accolades and a spot on the Big West All-Freshman Team.
Rodriguez is the team's leading returner in points and rebounds, averaging 9.1 points per contest and 6.4 rebounds per game in all contests. The 6-0 forward is the team leader, voted captain last year as a sophomore.
Erica McKenzie will return to shooting guard after stepping in at the point last season, The junior handed out over three assists per game while knocking down 47 three-pointers.
Also returning is sophomore guard Sam Pettinger (Everett, Wash.), who also spent time out of position at point guard, as well as 5-11 junior guard Ashley Wakefield (Inglewood, Calif.), who sat out last season after transferring from College of the Canyons.
Seven newcomers will join a Pacific squad: Kendall Kenyon, a 6-2 freshman post out of St. Mary's High School in Stockton and freshman guards Kristina Johnson (5-5, Santa Monica, Calif.), Claire Conricode (5-10, Bothell, Wash.), and Hailie Eackles (5-9, Sunnyvale, Calif.), along with junior college transfers Brianna Johnson (5-10 forward, Colorado Springs, Colo. from Central Arizona), Ashley Smith (6-1 forward, Eugene, Ore. from Lane Community) and Kelli Lewis (5-8 guard, Canyon Country, Calif. from College of the Canyons).
" I'm really excited to work with this group," Roberts said. "As excited as I've been to work with a team. It's hard to put a finger on what exactly it is, but there's a lot of intangibles. This group is different in terms of their work ethic. They work harder than any group we've had here. The team camaraderie is by far the best we've ever had."
"Our returning group has all played and has experience. Gena Johnson was All-Freshman in the Big West last year. Erica McKenzie was All-Freshman when she was a freshman and is in the best shape of her life. Kendall Rodriguez was our captain last season as a sophomore. She's back and had a great offseason. Christina Thompson is our only senior, was the Big West's Sixth Woman of the Year two years ago. Sam Pettinger got a ton of experience last year as a freshman. And Ashley Wakefield, who redshirted last year, we believe will be an impact player. So we have three returning starters from last year, and while CT didn't start, played significant minutes last year and started as a sophomore."
"Gena Johnson was All-Conference and All-Freshman last year. She had a great summer. The broken hand forced her to work on her conditioning and her other hand. So while we'd have loved to have her for the Cal Poly game, it really made her more of a diverse player. She really has improved, and coming off a great freshman year, the summer between freshman and sophomore year is a critical one, and she really improved. I think she can have a phenomenal year."
Johnson will be flipping places with McKenzie, taking over point guard duties with McKenzie sliding back to her natural spot.
"Erica McKenzie, of all the returnees, I think had had the best off-season. She took it very seriously and got in the best shape she could be in to work on her game. Her commitment level went through the roof this summer. That's going to make her a better player, more explosive, better defender. All the things she needed to work on. She still can shoot the lights out, still can create shots for other people, but now she's a better athlete."
With them in the back court will be Pettinger, with the versatility to handle both positions.
"Sam Pettinger is our jack of all trades player. She's really worked on her outside shot this summer. She did a nice job for us last year at the point, out of desperation because of injuries. We had to move her from the off-guard/wing to point, but now we can put her back in her more natural position. She plays as hard as anyone. We're going to need that defensively. I think she can create a real niche for herself."
Making her debut on the wing will be Wakefield, and explosive athlete making the transition from College of the Canyons. Wakefield sat out last season, but practiced with the Tigers in the spring semester.
"Ashley Wakefield was the California Community College Player of the Year, but red-shirted last season. She's a phenomenal player. She brings an athleticism and a toughness and an ability to get to the basket that we've lacked. She's incredibly explosive and can finish. I think she's going to surprise a lot of people."
Up front, the Tigers will pair Rodriguez at one forward spot with Thompson jumping center.
"Kendall Rodriguez was our captain last year as a sophomore, that says a lot about her leadership. She has a really high basketball IQ. She always seems to make good decisions. I really don't know what else to say about her, she's a player who just 'gets it.' She understands what we're trying to do, and leads our team towards that.
"For us to have a big year, Christina Thompson is going to have to contribute and be consistent. She's as talented as they come, with her ability to score around the basketball. The biggest thing we're looking for is 'can she do it night in and night out?' She wants to make her senior year a good one."
"We have a solid group of newcomers, with nice balance: four freshman, three junior college transfers," Roberts said. "I'm excited about all seven of them. They'll all be able to step in and give us something right away. We have a balance of size and guard play. A balance of skill and athleticism. I think it's a very deep class."
Up front, Thompson and Rodriguez will have a trio of newcomers as reinforcements in Ashley Smith, Brianna Johnson and Kendall Kenyon.
"Ashley Smith is from Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon, where she was the leading scorer and rebounder in the NWAC conference, a very reputable conference in the junior college level. She's an inside player who can post up, but she can also shoot the three. That versatility will help us on offense. She knows how to use her body well in space. She rebounds well and finishes well. She's a good all-around player."
"Brianna Johnson is coming from arguably the best junior college program in the country at Central Arizona. They won several National Championships. In a word, she is tough. She's not afraid to set a hard screen or get a big board. Defend the biggest player. She is that player you need: tough, physical presence."
"Kendall Kenyon is a freshman from St. Mary's here in Stockton. She has impressed everybody a lot in the fall and has been better than we envisioned. She's long: Six-foot-two with a six-foot-six-inch wing span. She is tall and long and athletic. She had the highest vertical jump of anyone on the team in offseason fitness testing. We've got to get her a little stronger and build up her outside game, but if she continues to develop, she can be a big factor for us."
The Tigers also bring a new pair of wings into the mix, with Claire Conricode and Hallie Eackles each adding different dimensions to the Tigers' offense.
"Claire Conricode. out of the Seattle area was MVP of the 3A State tournament. She is going to surprise some people. She's fearless as a player, which I love. She plays hard and can get out and run. She's a wing with significant shooting range. She has the mentality of 'with the game on the line, give me the ball. I'll make it.' And you love to see that, especially in a freshman. There's a work ethic there, but there's also a deep confidence that she can make the play when it matters."
"Hallie Eackles was a recruiting steal for us. She's from Pinewood High School, one of the best high school programs in the state of California. They've won back-to-back state titles and she was second-team all-state for California for all divisions. She is an athlete that can absolutely get to the basket and can shoot as well. She needs to learn the physicality of this level. She needs to learn to finish strong, but I think she's a prototypical Division I wing. She can shoot, get to the bucket and rebound. She's a great athlete."
In the back court, Pacific adds a pair of guards, a point guard in Kristina Johnson and a shooting guard in Kelli Lewis.
"Kelli Lewis was First Team All-State in California. In a word, she's a shooter. She can shoot from deep, NBA range deep. She understands the game, and can create shots for her teammates by keeping the game pretty simple."
"Kristina Johnson is a true point guard, and that's something we've needed the last couple of years. She understands the role of a point guard. She plays fast very well. Up-tempo, she can get the outlet and go. She makes good decisions and that's what we need from a point guard. And she can break pressure and handle the ball. She's a freshman, and as a point guard there's a steep learning curve. She has the tools to be a very good point guard.
"The neat thing about our roster is that we have really good kids," Roberts concluded. "I think Pacific attracts those types of kids. They're academically motivated, with high level of intelligence. They've got a great sense of humor. They're just good kids and they're fun to be around. There's a level of camaraderie at a private school that you just don't get necessarily at other places. It's a tight-knit group, family atmosphere and this group has really embraced that so far. That makes it fun for all of us. It's hard to predict what our record is going to be this year, but I guarantee you we'll have fun, enjoy being around each other, and work hard."
With the roster stocked with talent, deeper and more athletic than ever, coach Roberts expects a leap forward in the Tigers' chase for their first Big West title.
"Because of the type of players that we have, and the system that we're going to run, Our players, our style and what those players will allow us to do offensively and defensively, and our work ethic, I think it will be a breakout year for us and I'm excited."
With 13 versatile players on the roster, speed, athleticism and depth unlike any of her teams at Pacific, Roberts wants to turn the Big West title race into an actual race.
"What we don't have is the big 6-3 center. So we're going to play fast and try and use a speed advantage over teams that might be bigger up front. We're in the best shape we've ever been in. This is the best-conditioned group, we've very athletic – more than we've ever been. We want to be fast and physical and get it up and down the court."
The Tigers will push in 2011-12, both on the floor and hopefully up the Big West standings, and push together.
"Chemistry is huge. And it's one thing that you can't really control. The players control it. You can try to foster it, try to develop it. But at the end of the day, it's how the players get along and interact. I think if the players are enjoying each other off the floor, and trusting each other on and off the floor, I think that translates into better team basketball. More locking arms in adversity and picking each other up. I think there's great chemistry with this year's team."
"I think our non-conference schedule is a good on for us," Roberts commented. "Obviously, we're returning the game with Connecticut, which should be fun. I know the players are excited about going back there after having them at the Spanos Center last year. It should be a great atmosphere."
Last season, Pacific sold out the Spanos Center for the first time in the women's program's history as 6,150 set a Tigers attendance record against the then-No. 1 ranked UConn Huskies.
This season, Pacific will play their second game of the year in Storrs, Connecticut on Nov. 15 after a season-opening road contest at Fairfield (Nov. 13).
"We also have Florida coming in as our marquee home game. It will be great to play an SEC team at home," Roberts said about the Tigers continued trend of bringing a national power to the Spanos Center annually.
The Tigers will continue their tradition of playing local opponents with 20 games against California teams,
"Where we are location wise, it's easy to get good games against local opponents. We have Fresno State on the road, St. Mary's at home, and we're going to CSU Bakersfield and San Diego. But we also wanted to bring in some new teams from outside the region. So we invited Southern Illinois Edwardsville and Air Force as well as Eastern Washington to the Spanos Center. And we're starting a home and home series with Nevada in Reno this season. So there's a mix of some of the regional teams, but also some fresh opponents."
"I really like our schedule. There's a nice balance with a couple of bigger name opponents in non-conference leading in to the tough Big West schedule."
The Big West, where a razor-thin margin separates the top teams from the bottom of the conference, is expected to be as competitive as ever. Last season, the two co-champions of the conferences carried losses against the two teams at the bottom of the standings, with everyone in between capable of knocking off anyone.
"The Big West Conference is wide open. There's a lot of good teams and everyone is feeling optimistic. It's going to be a competitive conference. Every game is competitive and there's very little margin for error. It's the team that shows up consistently night after night in this conference that determines who's the champion. Most games are going to be very, very close, so I think momentum and who stays healthy will be a huge part of deciding the conference."