Three years ago, the Pacific women’s basketball team won five games. Two years ago they won six games. Last year they upped that total to eight, but still finished only 2-12 in the Big West, good for dead last. But with four returning starters and eight returning letterwinners, the Tigers came into the 2007-08 season with hopes of turning the program around. With a 5-8 record in nonconference play, the Tigers weren’t exactly lighting the world on fire, but they were proving to be a far more competitive team than in years past.

All signs pointed to this season being the one where the Tigers finally made some noise in the Big West. That all changed in mid-December though, when the loss of sophomore guard Jake Kelly became just the latest in a long line of blows to the Pacific roster. Kelly, a member of last seasons Big West All-Freshman Team, was expected to star for this year’s Tigers squad, but she abruptly left the team in December to deal with health issues. While there was speculation at the time that Kelly had simply quit the team, Head Coach Lynne Roberts has since announced that she will instead seek a medical redshirt, allowing her to return next season as a sophomore.

“This program completely supports Jake and her need to take a leave of absence,” Roberts said. “She is a tremendous asset to our basketball program, and we look forward to having her back when her health permits.”

The Northern California native will be sorely missed on the court, as she started 28 of 30 games last season and the first nine games of the current campaign. At the time of her departure, Kelly was third on the team in scoring with 10.6 points per game, to go along with 2.7 rebounds and 2.2 assists.

The Tigers suffered another devastating blow shortly thereafter when freshman Andrea Swanson went down with a stress fracture in her right leg. Swanson will miss the rest of the season, which is a crushing blow to the Tigers as she was averaging 10.7 points and 3.8 rebounds in nine games. Like Kelly, Swanson will seek a medical redshirt.

With the absence of two of the team’s top scorers, other players have been forced to step up, and junior forward Janae Young has done just that. The junior college transfer leads the squad in scoring with 11.6 points per game and rebounding with 6.7 boards per game. Young has teamed with junior forward Karen Dawkins to form a formidable front line for the Tigers. An All-Big West Honorable Mention selection a season ago, Dawkins has picked up where she left off with averages of 11.2 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. Dawkins missed the first four games of the season with an injury, but she is rounding into form and has played some of her best basketball as of late.

Rounding out the scoring attack are senior guard Kelsey Lavender and junior guard Amy VanHollebeke. Lavender is averaging 7.2 points per game while leading the team in three-point shooting. VanHollebeke has done most of her damage at the line, with a team-high 42 made free throws in 56 attempts. The transfer is averaging 9.2 points per game and her presence is made all the more important by the loss of Kelly.

Despite the early lack of fortune, the Tigers are confident that they have what it takes to overcome the adversity. After all, this is a program that has won only 19 games in the previous three seasons, allowing the squad to overcome more than their share of misfortune.

“We have spent the past three years fighting and scrapping every night,” senior guard Tyler Moran said. “This is the year you will see it all come together and why we have worked so hard.”

While the Tigers got smoked on the road in their Big West opener at UC Riverside, they recovered to split last weekend’s homestand. Following a tightly contested loss to Long Beach State, UOP came out firing against Cal State Northridge and came away with a 79-73 victory. Young led the scoring effort with 16 points and Dawkins dominated the boards, coming away with 11 rebounds.

With most of their Big West games still ahead of them, there are two very distinct directions in which this program can head. On the one hand, they can come together as a team and join the conferences elite, despite the injury bug. The squad is already on pace for its best season in years, and a strong finish to the season could set the Tigers up for a high seed in the Big West Tournament. On the other hand, the Tigers can revert back to their old form, and let another year pass by without double-digit wins. The road from here on out is tough, but if Pacific can overcome the tough hand it’s been dealt, Coach Roberts and her players can reach the goals they’ve set for themselves, while building for a future that will likely feature a pair of returning stars.