Matadors set sights for upcoming season

Ivan Yeo

Following a 2005-2006 season that saw the CSUN women’s basketball team start slow and struggle throughout the season, but finish strong, the Matadors now head into the 2006-2007 season stronger and better and looking to fulfill the promise bestowed upon the program at the start of last year.

“It couldn’t come fast enough,” head coach Staci Schulz said of the upcoming season. “The team is ready to go, they’re excited, they enjoy practice because they’re preparing to do pretty good things this year.”

Coming off a 2004-2005 season that saw the Matadors finish fourth in the Big West Conference with an 18-11 record and 11-7 in the Big West Conference, its best showing since the 1999-2000 season, the Matadors entered last season with high expectations, as evidenced by both the Big West media and coaches polls picking them to finish third in the conference.

However, prior to the start of the season, CSUN lost perhaps the one player it could illafford to lose, as Ofa Tulikihihifo, the Matadors’ main offensive threat who had averaged 16 points per game during her first three years at CSUN, suffered a stress fracture of her left tibia. For the first two months, the Matadors wavered, going 3-8 in their first 11 games as the team anxiously awaited word on Tulikihihifo’s status. Finally in January, the Matadors decided it would be best if Ofa extended her recovery time into the remainder of the season in order to ensure her full health and also help the team concentrate on playing the season.

“I’d rather be out there giving 100 percent to the team instead of 80 or 75, I would be hurting the team,” Tulikihihifo said.

The Matadors continued to struggle, going 5-9 in Big West Conference play, including two losses to future conference member UC Davis, but caught fire at just the right time. Seeded seventh in the Big West Tournament, the Matadors upset sixth-seeded UC Irvine 66-64 and third-seeded Cal State Fullerton 74-70. The Matadors then battled previously 11-time Big West Champion UC Santa Barbara to a furious finish before the Gauchos eventually pulled through.

“I really feel that other people stepped up and they became the premier players on the team,” Schulz said. “I think they spread the workload across the board, and so we didn’t have any major superstars which I think led to the bit of success that we did have.”

Now with all but three players returning, seven of them seniors including Tulikihihifo, along with the edition of four freshmen, the Matadors head into the upcoming year looking to finish what they started at the Anaheim Convention Center back in March.

“I’m really looking forward to this year,” senior guard Jamie McCaa said. “We have seven seniors coming back, we’re working hard and it’s going to be a good year.”

“I’m very excited,” Tulikihihifo said. “We definitely have a shot at not only making the Big West Tournament, but taking it.”

Tulikihihifo is expected to resume her role as the team’s No. 1 offensive threat, though she will not be alone in supplying the offensive punch.

McCaa picked up the scoring slack in Tulikihihifo’s absence, averaging a team-high 11.6 points per game last season, earning her All-Big West Honorable mention last year. Another senior guard, LaJoyce King is a threat on offense (11.5 ppg in 2006), but also on the boards. King averaged 6.5 boards a game last year and against the Gauchos in the Big West Tournament crashed the boards with a vengeance, grabbing a career-high 19 boards, which tied for the school record with Tulikihihifo, 12 of which were offensive.

Six-foot-four-inch junior Katie Holloway, the Big West Sixth Man of the year will contribute to the Matador front line along with six-foot-three-inch senior Jazelle Burries, who showed flashes of her ability, scoring 27 points against Santa Clara on Dec. 28 and scoring 21 points and grabbing 11 rebounds versus USC on Dec. 9.

Also adding to the frontline will be six-foot-four-inch sophomore Crystal Hahs and six-foot-two-inch senior Kristin O’Rourke, while seniors Megan Ching and Krisztina Fuleki and sophomore Ashley Blake will contribute in the back court.

The Matadors also welcome four newcomers to the mix. Shanice Howard, a five-foot-five-inch guard from Mount Miguel High in San Diego and Katrina Thompson, a five-foot-eight-inch guard from Sylmar High will add more depth to the backcourt. Morgan Pryor (5’10”), a swingman from Hayward, will see time at both guard and forward while Tinisha Patrick (5’11”) of Kearny High in San Diego will contribute at the forward position.

The Matadors’ chances of competing for the Big West Conference title received a huge boost when, after a decade of dominance, Santa Barbara’s reign at the top finally came to an end when it was upset by fourth-seeded UC Riverside in the conference title game. The Gauchos’ loss, combined with the abrupt departures of three key players, means that this year’s title race will be as wide open as ever.

When both the Big West media and coaches polls came out on media day, the Matadors were picked to finish fourth place behind Santa Barbara, Riverside and Long Beach State, which is perfectly fine with them.

“It’s good to be fourth because we’re still kind of the underdog and people aren’t coming at you 24/7,” McCaa said. “It lights a fire underneath us.”

The Matadors’ 2006-2007 schedule will be a tough one. In addition to their Big West rivals, the Matadors will have non-conference games against Pepperdine on Nov. 28 and Santa Clara on Dec. 2. Both teams represented the West Coast Conference in postseason play last year. The Matadors will also have a home bout with Western Athletic Conference member Hawaii on Dec. 5 and road contests with Colorado on Nov. 19 and Brigham Young University on Dec. 9.

But perhaps the biggest pre-conference game for CSUN will occur on Dec. 22, one day after final exams, as the Matadors will host the Michigan State Spartans, which two seasons ago were playing Baylor for the National Championship, at the Matadome at 2 p.m.

“I’m chomping at the bit,” Schulz said. “I can’t say it any other way, I cannot wait. I think those games could go either way.”

Before then, the Matadors will have two exhibition games to get ready for the regular season. The Matadors will start their pre-season schedule against “Love and Basketball,” an AAU squad named after the 2000 movie, on Halloween night at 7:30 p.m. and end it against The Masters’ College, an NAIA school based in Santa Clarita. The Matadors will then open the regular season against the University of San Diego Toreros at the Matadome Nov. 10 at 7 p.m.