Stockton, Calif. – The Pacific women's basketball team gets set to open the 2015-16 campaign with an exhibition Saturday against Sonoma State at 5 p.m. at the Alex G. Spanos Center
The Tigers enter the season with heavy turnover as seven newcomers join seven returning players, as well as half the coaching staff being new to Tiger Territory, and long-time assistant coach Bradley Davis taking over as head coach after nine years on staff.
It may be easy to look at the departing players and staff from last season's 21-10 squad - which finished third in the West Coast Conference and advanced to the postseason for the fourth-straight season with another WNIT bid - and overlook Pacific amid a series of specific questions. But with Davis in his 10th year of coaching and recruiting for the Tigers, and with the hindsight of how the Tigers have answered the questions of the last four Novembers with banners each March, perhaps there's only two questions for the program: Is this the new normal for Pacific women's basketball? And how has the team reloaded again for this upcoming season?
After all, while the Tigers lost their leading scorer from last season – forward Kendall Kenyon due to graduation and ensuing professional career in Europe – the Tigers have reeled off the program's most successful stint in program history, averaging 21 wins and a post-season bid per year, while replacing a graduated leading scorer twice and seven graduating all-conference players.
Pacific was tabbed sixth in the WCC preseason poll, the lowest in three editions since joining the conference. But the Tigers have finished better than the prognostication each season, following the departure of their leading scorer each season: Kendall Rodriguez in 2013-14, and KiKi Moore in 2014-15.
The 2015-16 Pacific squad returns Preseason All-WCC honoree Hailie Eackles, who was second on the team with 11.9 points per game as a junior last year as well as senior guard Erin Butler (7.7 points per game, 2.1 three-pointers made per game).
"Hailie and Erin are both fantastic three-point shooters," Davis said. "I think both have added to their overall games over the summer, significantly, so that opponents have to respect no only that they can shoot, but that they can get to the basket. Both have increased their strength over the summer. I'm impressed with the work they've put in over the summer."
Pacific also brings back juniors Unique Coleman (8.0 points per game, 1.9 steals per game) Emily Simons (55 percent from the field as a post player). Coleman earned All-Freshman team honors in 2013-14 but saw her 2014-15 campaign cut short to a knee injury. Simons was forced into frontcourt duty following a season-ending injury to senior Marjorie Heard just two games into last year, and the 5-10 guard shot 55 percent 'among the trees' last season from the field, hitting 46-of-84 shots.
"Unique worked harder than anyone to get back," Davis said. "She's done a fantastic job with the amount of time she's put in. The time she's spent with (athletic trainer) Sara Vargas, and in the weight room getting stronger has been impressive. She's been working a lot on her shooting, since she couldn't cut, and she's looked really good. We're confident that will translate come game time."
"Emily can play a variety of positions for us, and we'll use her at a number of them," Davis continued. "She's worked hard at her perimeter game, in terms of her ability to shoot from the outside as well as attack, which makes her even more versatile."
Last season's trio of freshmen return as sophomores for 2015-16, with a year of experience under their belts.
"Our sophomores got a lot of run at the end of last season. GeAnna Luaulu-Summers had a big role for us last season and earned WCC All-Freshman Team honors and after Erin and Unique were hurt, Desire Finnie and Najah Queenland had to play a lot more minutes than they had. The three sophomores played really big roles for us down the stretch as freshmen last season. They are coming off of that and had a great summer, and all three have done a great job of transitioning from being freshmen into being sophomores, knowing the offense, and their roles. They want more responsibility and more contributing roles, and all three have earned that. We're going to play all three of them more minutes, and in multiple spots and we're confident in their ability to continue to grow."
Luaulu-Summers (5.8 points per game) earned WCC All-Freshman team honors. Desire Finnie stepped up her game, scoring eight or more points in five of the final eight games of the season after scoring eight points twice in the previous 23 games. Queenland emerged late as a defensive presence, as she posted a +19 rating in the Tigers win at Gonzaga: the Tigers outscored the Bulldogs 40-21 with Queenland on the floor.
"I think we've been able to depend on Erin and Hailie to bring the kind of scoring and shooting they have the last two years for us, and I think they're going to be even better this season. They've added to their games, and Erin has really stepped up; she's playing like a senior," Davis said of his returning nucleus. "Desire has made leaps and bounds in terms of her comfort level with our systems and I think she can have a really big year for us. GeAnna and Unique were both Conference All-Freshman members in their first seasons and are both coming back more experienced and in All-Conference type form."
The Tigers added seven newcomers to the fold for 2015-16, including three in the front court. Competing for minutes in the post will be two 6-2 forwards joining Pacific via transfer, Eli Lopez Sagrera (Southern Idaho) and Mauriana Clayton (Central Arizona), as well as freshman Whitnee Wehi (6-2, Forward, Brisbane, Australia).
"Our most notable spot among the newcomers is the post position. Our three newcomers are really fighting it out for the playing time at that spot, along with returnee Emily Simons who can slot in there," Davis said. "And all three are picking things up quickly, and putting forth good efforts to be solid rebounders as well as a post presence offensively. Eli and Whitnee and Mauriana are going to be playing shared minutes at that spot, and I'm sure one or two will emerge as our "go-to," but right now it's a lot of learning and they're doing a good job."
"A lot has been made of our size inside - or lack there of - over the last few years - even with one of the best players in our history, Kendall Kenyon, as our starting post," the coach commented. "If we are winning 20 games and competing for a conference championship, which we have been, we're okay with being a little undersized. We've been able to play that to our advantage most the time. We're going to recruit players that fit what we do: and that is to be quick and push tempo and run. If we can have taller players who fit in and can run, then that is great. And I think we added more of that with this group of newcomers. At 6-2, each, they have a little more height and strength, while bringing the quickness and athleticism that fits our system."
In the backcourt, the Tigers have three guards eager to contribute in 2015-16 as freshmen Tylah King (6-0, Guard, Queensland, Australia), Chelsea Lidy (5-9, Guard, Torrance, Calif.), Ameela Li (5-6, Point Guard, Piedmont, Calif.) are set to take the floor this season. Ariana Vaughn (5-11, Forward/Guard, Stockton) is out of action following knee surgery in the fall.
"Ameela Li has come in ready to go as a back-up point guard. She'll back-up GeAnna Luaulu-Summers, but she gives us the ability to move GeAnna around a little bit because Ameela is a very competent point guard, especially in terms of what we do. She's fast, she's one of the most athletic players we have. Deceptively so, and she's deceptively strong as well. She has to the tools that make her very good in our offense and she's picking things up very quickly."
Tylah King is working and learning at a couple different positions, but looks like she slots in at the trail guard spot. Chelsea Lidy has picked things up quickly. She is the most athletic player, and it shows on the basketball floor. As she picks things up and things slow down for her, then she can use her athleticism and speed to be an asset for us."
All told, Davis has a roster full of weapons for the upcoming season. And with the up-tempo style Pacific plays, depth has been a trademark of the Tigers over the past few years.
"We are deep, and I think we're deep at every spot. You can see it when we have our Orange and Black teams scrimmaging against each other in practice. It took a little while with so many new players learning, but we took notice when it came together and clicked. At each position, you have players going against each other and really battling it out. That competition is really growing, and that competition is what allows us to be deep. The more these talented newcomers push the talented returnees, the more depth we have and the more weapons at our disposal. That's going to dictate how many players we can rotate in and out, and therefore how fast we can run."
"Another thing that depth does for you is that it allows you to match-up. At each position, they are different types of players with different strengths. So if we need someone who's a shooter first or if we need someone who's an attacker first, we have those options. It allows us to adapt and adjust on a per-game basis."
The Tigers will face a series of match-ups with a variety of styles Pacific's opponents play within the 2015-16 schedule. After Saturday's exhibition, Pacific will hit the road for six consecutive games. It's the longest stretch of true road games in program history (Pacific has played six straight away games three times, including one seven-game stretch, but each included a non-conference tournament at a neutral location).
"This season's schedule is going to test us, and test us early," said Davis. "We're in competitive games right away, and they happen to be away to start. We have six straight true road games in six tough opponent's home courts. It's not an undoable task. We've beaten some of these teams at home in the last few years, and now we're going to be at their place. But the positive side of having to be road-tested is that we can come out the other side stronger. I feel like if we can pass those tests, we can come home in December with momentum for a tough stretch of home games and see if we can get on a roll headed into conference play."
The Tigers face a deep and competitive West Coast Conference slate beginning in December. The preseason poll once again tabbed Gonzaga and BYU at the top of the WCC standings with four more post-season teams from 2015 behind them, with San Francisco rising last year to turn the "top five" into a "top six."
"There's never a game you can overlook in the WCC," Davis said. "The top of the conference has been very strong the last few years - And I guess we got voted out of it this year! But I think that shows the growth of the league as a whole. I think everyone is getting stronger and this will be a year where we see more upsets and more parity. It should be a lot of fun from December through February leading into the tournament in Las Vegas."
Once again, the WCC Basketball Championship will be held at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, with all 10 men's and women's programs at the same venue.
"I think the WCC Basketball Championship in Las Vegas is a great event, for both the men's and women's basketball programs. It's great that we all come together and meet at a true neutral site as a conference. We've been fortunate to have a good following of fans come out to Las Vegas and support us. It brings the conference together as a basketball community, and everyone can see that on display on national TV. Between our television partners, the whole women's tournament is on national television, culminating with the championship on ESPNU and not a lot of women's basketball conferences can say that and it's huge for the conference and great for our program."
Leading up to the WCC Championship, the names and roles may be different for the Tigers, but Pacific will play the same style of basketball under Davis that has led to 84 wins in the past four seasons, with some fine tuning, of course.
"We want to be a better defensively in the half court. We're changing our defensive system a little: partly to fit our personnel and partly after hearing new ideas from our new assistant coaches. But our philosophy remains unchanged: we still want to pressure, we still want to use our speed and athleticism," Davis said of his philosophies. "Offensively, system-wise, we're going to remain very much the same. But obviously each year, personnel changes and you have to adjust to fit that personnel. I think we are a little bit quicker this season, so we'll continue to be fast, and athletic and look to push tempo."
Following Saturday's exhibition opener, Pacific opens the regular season at Bakersfield on November 13.