A year ago, the Aggies (4-7) were the figurative new kids on the block, playing in their first season as official members of the Big West. Using a lineup stacked with veteran players itching to play with a championship on the line, UC Davis ran through conference play amassing a 12-4 record on the way to the Big West finals.
After following a finals loss to UCSB by making its first division one postseason appearance in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament, an impressive year wrapped up for a seasoned Davis squad that took no time to make its mark in a new conference. With the end of a great season also came the end of several great careers in Davis uniforms, most notably that of 2007-08 All-Big West first-teamer Jessica Campbell, who finished second in the league in scoring.
Entering their second year in the Big West, UCD welcomed seven freshmen — three of them redshirts — to try and fill the void left by all its graduating seniors. Returning with only four players with collegiate experience, the Aggies literally entered their sophomore campaign as the new kids on the block.
“Our inexperience was definitely a concern in preseason,” junior wing Haylee Donaghe said. “We knew we were going to need the freshmen to really step up in order to have successful season.”
The youth core had great opportunities to prove its worth early, as redshirt freshman post Lauren Juric and freshman wing Kasey Riecks were immediately inserted into the starting lineup. Redshirt freshman post Lisa Peterson took no time to make her presence felt, leading the team in scoring its first two games while coming off the bench, including a 14-point effort in the season opener on the road at Southern Utah.
“I’m very pleased with the freshmen so far,” Head Coach Sandy Simpson said. “By the time conference play rolls around, some of our freshmen are really going to be sophomores in terms of experience.”
As the new talent meshed with the remaining veterans, the Aggies raced to a 4-2 record in their first six games, with one of their two losses coming to a ranked Arizona State squad. Despite losing 79-53 to the Sun Devils, Davis was able edge the Pac-10 power on the boards, showing off a much-improved rebounding game that ranked dead last in the Big West a season ago.
“Our team is bigger this year, but rebounding really comes down to your attitude and desire to go after the ball,” Simpson said.
Going after the ball was no problem against Arizona State, but keeping the ball in possession certainly cost the Aggies as they turned the ball over 26 times. Undermanned at the guard position with freshman Hana Asano and senior Genevieve Costello as its only ball handlers, taking care of the rock has been a huge contributing factor to several UC Davis losses.
“Turnovers have cost us a couple games where we shot pretty well from the field,” Simpson said. “Everyone out there has to handle the ball to a degree, but we don’t subscribe to the typical one through five makeup in that we won’t always have a pure point guard out there.”
After following their loss to the Sun Devils with an impressive 85-69 comeback win at Saint Mary’s, turnovers and lack of depth due to injuries had the Aggies begin a tailspin heading into conference play, starting with a 52-45 loss against Sacramento State. Already without junior guard Anna Harp, the 2007 Waikiki Beach Classic tournament MVP, because of a torn ACL, Davis would suffer another setback in their eighth game of the season at South Dakota State. For the second time in the young season, one of the team’s few veterans, Haylee Donaghe, went down with a knee injury.
“I dislocated my kneecap which is a relatively minor injury,” Donaghe said. “I expect to be back at the beginning of league play and am hoping to provide a spark on both ends of the court, particularly from a defensive standpoint.”
Without a healthy Donaghe, who had been averaging 12 points and three steals per game, the team saw their losing streak extend to five to wrap up non-conference action. Through their disappointing finish against non-Big West opponents, one bright spot for the team is the continued emergence of sophomore post Paige Mintun, who is quickly establishing herself as one of the marquee players in the Big West.
“Paige has made big leaps in her game being injury-free this season,” Donaghe said. “She always had the capabilities of being a dominant post player, and this year she is really proving that she is one.”
Mintun, who currently ranks eighth in scoring in the Big West (12.3 ppg), fifth in rebounding (6.5 rpg) and first in free throw percentage (85%), has consistently put up numbers while avoiding foot problems that plagued her first two seasons as an Aggie. With the rest of the roster struggling to stay healthy in their own right, suiting up only eight players in their past two games versus No. 8 Stanford and Seattle University, Mintun has looked to be more assertive as the team’s first option on offense.
“It has really helped her game mentally not having to worry about injury anymore,” Costello said. “Paige is a big threat out there because she bangs down low but can also spread things out on the perimeter.”
On top of the return of All-Big West second-teamer Donaghe, UC Davis will have a couple other weapons heading into their first Big West match-up versus Cal State Northridge that should help draw defensive pressure away from Mintun. Post presence Lauren Juric has quietly flirted with a double-double in several contests as she improves with experience, having achieved the feat once with 14 points and 11 rebounds at Sacramento. The return of freshman wing Vicky Deely, perhaps Davis’ top recruit who was injured in the season opener, should also pay huge dividends.
“I’m really anxious to see Vicky start playing,” Costello said. “She has tons of strength that helps her defensively and on the boards.”
Even if the Aggies are able to stay healthy, the road to the Big West championship should be an arduous test for Simpson, the reigning Big West Head Coach of the Year, and his predominantly inexperienced talent. Despite their youth, UC Davis does not lack the confidence to make a run similar to that of their 2007-08 campaign, which would firmly cement its place alongside Riverside and Santa Barbara as the Big West elite.
“Our record in no way reflects the quality of our players, who are mature beyond their years,” Simpson said. “We got down against a lot of teams but we are a resilient bunch, and we will show that come conference play.”