Cindy Fisher was moving right along with practice last Friday, slotted to end around 4:30 p.m. in the Jenny Craig Pavilion — but it didn’t. A bonus allotment of about 10 minutes kept the University of San Diego arena’s lights on the court as its women’s basketball coach, players and staff continued to perfect the nuances of an offensive play to counter a defensive set employed by an upcoming foe.
The scheduled two-hour practice went longer than expected, but doing a little bit extra seems to mirror what defines this year’s team.
“It’s fun to come to practice after a win,” said 6-foot-2 redshirt senior forward Felicia Wijenberg. “Every day we go over what happened the day before and look at what we still need to do to improve. It was a great win last night (80-70 over St. Mary’s Jan. 2) but we’re constantly working on things to get better. We’re not living in the past. It’s a mental toughness that has helped us keep our focus and continue to win.”
Fisher’s team, mind you, is undefeated, 15-0 overall and 4-0 in West Coast Conference play. The Toreros, who play road games this week at Portland (Wednesday, 7 p.m.) and Gonzaga (Saturday, 2 p.m.), are off to the best start ever in the program’s 35-year history. And, on Monday, Jan. 6, the Toreros learned it had earned its first-ever Associated Press Top 25 ranking at No. 24 — a first national ranking for either USD basketball program.
“The ranking means a lot to the team, the staff and the university. It shows we’ve taken something and built it. We’ve had great players in the past who have built the foundation, and the work ethic of this current group is getting it done. It’s all paying off,” said Fisher, who currently has a 163-101 record at USD with one NCAA Tournament appearance (2008, 0-1), three Women’s NIT postseason appearances (5-3 record) and one WCC Tournament title (2008).
The success of Fisher’s 2013-14 team is, undoubtedly, the way it has worked well as a group, overcoming the loss of last year’s WCC Freshman of the Year, Maya Hood, to a redshirt decision, and a season-ending ACL injury to junior forward Katelyn McDaniel after USD reached the 10-0 mark in mid-December.
“We have great senior leaders and we’ve come together and there’s a lot of chemistry,” said Sophia Ederaine, a 6-3 junior forward who is USD’s top shot-blocker. “We’re all working very hard and we have a lot of faith in each other. We’re really focused, even after winning a big game. It can be easy to lose focus after that, but we’re working hard in every practice and every game.”
The experienced roster features returning WCC first-team selection, senior guard Amy Kame, who leads USD in scoring (15.8 points-per-game average overall, 19.3 ppg in WCC) assists (54) and steals (29); Malina Hood, who is only a sophomore, but she’s averaging 12.9 ppg and has a team-high 33 three-pointers; Wijenberg (10.3 ppg, 7.6 rebounds per game); Ederaine (8.7 ppg, 7.1 rpg); and senior Alysse Barlow (6.1 ppg, 24 steals).
Redshirt junior 6-foot guard/forward Brooke Jelniker (5.9 ppg, 4.9 rpg) is one player in particular who has been praised by Wijenberg, Fisher, and others, for playing well to fill the void of McDaniel (10.3 ppg, 8.1 rpg), who went down prior to USD’s last nonconference game, against UC Irvine, before WCC play started.
“I was really proud of the way the players responded in the Irvine game. They were coming off final exams, preparing to go home for Christmas and we’d just lost one of our leaders,” Fisher said in what was a 79-55 win. “A lot of credit goes to Brooke for moving from the wing to the post spot, which she’s never played in her life, but she’s got great size and she’s a great rebounder. She’s doing a good job as she’s learning.”
Others getting more playing time, thus providing depth with still half a season to go, are freshmen Katherine Hamilton and Cori Woodward, senior Kameron Knutson and junior Sophie Ederaine.
One other aspect of the success that Fisher has built at USD is through the consistency found in her coaching staff. Mary Ann Falcosky and Niecee Nelson have both been here nine years, Ashley Ford is in her fourth season and Kaila Mangrum, the first player Fisher signed to play for her at USD (2005-09), is in her fourth season on staff and second as director of basketball operations.
“I’m blessed with an amazing staff. They’ve been with me a long time and they take a lot of pressure and stress off me because they’re so prepared,” Fisher said. “I’ve learned to rely on them more and let them have more say in what we’re doing.”
Happiness is winning, but having a program in which everyone contributes to that success can breed confidence and make everything better.
“What I love about this team is that on any given night, one person may have a big game, but everyone on the floor is putting out 100 percent effort,” Wijenberg said. “It’s a collective effort. We’re playing consistently, we’re playing together and the common goal is that we’re going to get it done no matter what.”
— Ryan T. Blystone
Photos courtesy of USD Athletics