“They’d had a really impressive practice and I told them to remember this day and that this team had the potential to be a very special group,” said the seventh-year University of San Diego head coach.
Fast forward to late March now and Fisher doesn’t really have to say it. She knows it. Her staff knows it. Her players and loyal fans know and believe it. Their opponents in this month’s Women’s National Invitation Tournament — Cal State Northridge, University of the Pacific, Texas Tech and, on Sunday, Washington — have found it out as the Toreros have ended their respective seasons.
“Being in that environment against a Big 12 team, in front of their fans, and coming out of it with a win, was so exciting,” Fisher said last Friday after USD defeated Texas Tech on the road. “It’s exciting for our seniors, it’s fun seeing our young players grow and seeing this team have so much confidence in each other. It’s a collective effort.”
The Toreros have a 26-8 overall record, good for the program’s most wins ever in a season. This month’s 4-0 postseason mark are the only wins in the program’s eight-game postseason history. The Toreros, following a 58-47 win over Washington, are now preparing to face host Oklahoma State in a WNIT Final Four game at 7 p.m. (5 p.m. Pacific time) on Wednesday. The winner plays in the March 31 title game.
“Every team still playing this deep in March is going on adrenaline, excitement and the passion to win,” Fisher said. “Each game we win, this team gets stronger and stronger and the bond gets tighter and tighter. It’s a group of kids who understand their roles. All they care about is winning.”
Any conversation about USD starts with the senior trio of Dominique Conners, Morgan Woodrow (pictured, foreground) and Izzy Chilcott.
Conners and Woodrow have been Toreros since Fall 2008. Recruited to USD while the 2007-08 team was en route to winning the West Coast Conference Tournament title on its own home court and advancing to the NCAA Tournament, Fisher said both had the chance to see what that year’s team did and were motivated to maintain it.
“They were around when that celebration in the JCP (Jenny Craig Pavilion) took place in 2008,” Fisher said. “They’ve wanted to feel that same excitement. Their goal has been to strive to do more than any other team has done.”
Despite valiant efforts, including a WCC Tournament title game appearance in 2009, Conners and Woodrow had not participated in a postseason until USD received its automatic berth into the WNIT on March 12.
Conners, a 5-foot-8 shooting guard who attended nearby La Jolla Country Day, is a three-time All-WCC first team selection and earlier this season became the program’s all-time leading scorer. She’s had postseason efforts of 26, 23, 13 and 14 points in the Toreros’ four wins. She’s started all 34 games, averaging 16.7 points-per-game, five rebounds and a team-high 71 steals.
Woodrow, 6-0 forward, was an All-WCC first-team selection for the first time this season. She’s averaging 13.3 ppg and 4.9 rebounds. Her 27 points against Pacific included her 1,000th career point. She has been USD’s leading scorer in three postseason games, including efforts like one against Texas Tech when her value to the team goes beyond her statistical production.
“Her leadership never wavered,” Fisher said of Woodrow’s playxas Tech. Conners got into foul trouble and Woodrow took over. “She got upset when that happened to Dominique and she tried to keep the rest of the team calm and focused.”
Chilcott, a 5-10 guard from Queensland, Australia who transferred to USD after two seasons at Pensacola (Fla.) Community College, is the team’s top rebounder (6.4 average) and is a solid presence on the court.
The senior trio is helped by a core group of underclassmen that have gained valuable experience and confidence the longer the season goes.
Amy Kame is a sophomore guard averaging 11.5 points, 5.2 rebounds, with 58 steals and was an All-WCC Honorable Mention. Redshirt sophomore Felicia Wijenberg, sophomore Kameron Knutson, freshman Sophia Ederaine (team-high 54 blocked shots) and junior Klara Wischer have each made key contributions while playing in 30 or more games, respectively, this season.
To continue the Toreros’ wave of success, Fisher knows how important it is to focus on each game. A USD win on Wednesday against Oklahoma State would put the Toreros into the WNIT title game against the other semifinal winner, Syracuse or James Madison.
“It says a lot for this (Torero) team and what it’s been able to do so far. I’m extremely proud of them and our staff,” Fisher said. Prior to Sunday’s game, she commented on the Elite Eight field of teams. “There are a lot of big teams left in the tournament. We might be one of the smallest dogs in the fight, but I think we still have a lot of fight left in us.”
Two more “fights” and an already special group of female student-athletes will have a special keepsake of the 2011-12 season.
— Ryan T. Blystone
Photo courtesy of Scottphoto.net