Try and tell University of La Verne women’s basketball coach Julie Kline that her team is the favorite to repeat as SCIAC champion. She doesn’t want to hear it. It doesn’t matter that she didn’t have a senior a year ago, or the returning cast includes reigning conference Player of the Year Trenecca Jones. The veteran coach doesn’t want the burden of that kind of pressure.
“I don’t like that label,” she said. “It’s a new year. Teams are different. No one is giving us anything. We have to go out and earn it again.”
Practice games are over. The eight teams start their conference schedules tonight. The Leopards (7-4) will have their hands full as Occidental (7-3) makes a visit to Frantz Athletic Court at 7:30.
Other local teams will be in action as Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (1-9) travels to Redlands (7-3) and Pomona-Pitzer (1-9) hits the road for a game at Cal Lutheran (4-5).
Kline has seen most of the other teams play and said her team will be challenged, starting with tonight’s opponent. Occidental is led by Western Kentucky transfer Brianne Brown and Stacie Roshon, whose 17.8 scoring average is second among conference players.
“Occidental did a great job of recruiting and they’re going to be very tough,” Kline said. “And Cal Lutheran beat Chapman, which none of the rest of us have done. We lost to them twice.”
La Verne returns four key starters in Jones, senior guards Melissa Raya and Lindsey Shiomi and sophomore forward Emily Carrillo. Senior forward Leslie Elrod drew several starts last year but freshman Ashley Paul has worked her way into the lineup. Raya leads the conference in scoring (18 ppg) and scored her 1,000th career point last month.
Only three teams head into conference play with winning records; the other is Redlands. The Bulldogs are directed by first-year coach Rich Murphy. He is replacing Jim Ducey, who now is coaching the men’s team.
Murphy, previously an assistant at Division II Humboldt State, isn’t sure what to expect but said that doesn’t matter.
“I have seen a couple teams in person and seen a couple others on film and I think we can compete,” he said. “But I’m not worried about other teams. I am more concerned with what we’re doing because that is the only thing we can control.”
Redlands, which won its last three nonconference games, does have an easier schedule in the early going. Its first three games are against teams that have won a combined four games.
The Bulldogs are led by steady senior guard Valarie Katayama and sophomore forward Meghan Yetman.
Claremont-Mudd-Scripps always has challenged in years past but is going through a transition. All-conference post player Cameron Hanson is out with a torn knee ligament. The Athenas also lost two players who went to study abroad and one who chose not to play. Count two others who graduated, and coach Jodie Burton is without six key players from a year ago.
“We have already gotten better in a short time but we’re going to take our lumps,” she said. “I have never quite had a year like this. To win a championship, you have to be lucky, not just good and we haven’t gotten a break.”
The SCIAC, like many other sports, is going to hold a conference tournament at the end of the basketball season that will determine the automatic qualifier for the NCAA Division III playoffs instead of the regular-season champion advancing.
La Verne would appear to be one of the teams with the most to lose, but Kline is taking the change in the playoff system in stride.
“We’ll see how it plays out because I might change my mind,” she said. “The season should count for something, but it is also good to have the team that is playing best at the time go on.”
“It is what it is. We know what we have to do,” he said. “If we’re good enough, then we’re good enough.”
Men’s basketball teams kick off conference play on Saturday with all eight teams in action.