UC Davis Women's Basketball First Practice
DAVIS, Calif. -- The old saying goes, "The journey of a 1,000 miles begins with a single step." The 159-day journey to the Big West Conference championship game began with the Aggies' first step on Monday, as the UC Davis women's basketball team energetically took the court at historic Hickey Gym for its first official practice of the 2016-17 season.
"The energy was really high, we were competing hard and having fun… This team has been looking forward to this day for a long time," Head Coach Jennifer Gross said. "This group put a lot of work in during the summer and is excited for our journey to begin. We have a great group of veterans that grew so much last season… they are ready to build on those experiences. And we’ve added a talented freshman class that is capable of contributing right away. Our coaching staff is very excited about what this team can become and is eager to get things going."
With the fall quarter a mere 12 days old, the Aggies have now had to mix their training schedule in with their academic responsibilities, and shrug off any cases of the "Monday's" to come together for the first time as a team after spending the summer working in individual groups to hone their skills in preparation for the upcoming campaign.
It's a veteran group for Gross that features only one senior in graduate accounting student Lauren Beyer, who is back after being granted a sixth-year of eligibility following injuries suffered early in her career.
“Lauren has been with our coaching staff for over five years and she exemplifies what our program is about," Gross said. "She is a selfless player who always steps up and does whatever her team needs. We are so fortunate that she is returning to provide essential leadership for this group.”
Overall, UC Davis returns seven letter winners and three starters off of last season's squad that finished 19-13 overall and came tantalizingly close to an NCAA Tournament berth with its appearance in the Big West Tournament championship game.
Juniors Dani Nafekh, Pele Gianotti, and Rachel Nagel, join redshirt sophomore Morgan Bertsch, as the core of a roster that welcomes the now-eligible Marly Anderson, who sat out last year after transferring from Eastern Washington. Also returning are seasoned sophomore guards Kourtney and Karley Eaton, who each appeared in 30 games in their first seasons as Aggies, and four freshmen, who will look to make an immediate impact.
After sitting out her true freshman year, Bertsch came out firing on all cylinders in her 2015-16 Division I debut, leading the team in scoring at 13.9 points per game, ranking among the top 10 shooters in the nation with a .582 field goal percentage, and earning All-Big West second team, Big West All-Freshman Team, and Big West All-Tournament Team honors. The biomedical engineering major became the first freshman to lead the Aggies in scoring since Carol Rische in 1979-80, while her 446 points were the most by a UC Davis newcomer since Rische set the mark with 459.
She will get some help from, among others, Gianotti, who was an All-Big West honorable mention selection a season ago, averaging a career-best 11.5 ppg and 5.2 rpg, while shooting 45 percent from the field and 38 percent from three-point range. In the backcourt, Nafekh and Kourtney Eaton ran the point to the tune of a combined 243 assists, ranking them among the top 10 in the league last season in assists, assists per game, and assist-to-turnover ratio, while Nagel rebounded from a mid-season injury to average nearly nine points per contest and provide the Aggies with a consistent outside shooting threat.
"I feel confident that we can score the ball, and I think our fans are going to have a lot of fun watching this team play," Gross said. "We pass the ball extremely well, we're very unselfish, and we have so many different weapons offensively. We’re working on developing a grittiness defensively that will win us games even on an off-shooting night. This team is beginning to understand how important our defensive efficiency and toughness is going to be.”
Anderson will provide the Aggies with size on the inside, giving UC Davis a go-to 1-2 punch down low, much like fans saw last year when Bertsch and the now-graduated Alyson Doherty, who has gone on to a professional career in Germany, shared the paint. Karley Eaton joins her sister the backcourt, giving the Aggies another shooting option from the outside and another exciting passer.
It will be a difficult task replacing the likes of Doherty, Celia Marfone, Heidi Johnson, and Molly Greubel, leaving big shoes to fill statistically and in terms of leadership. That group contributed a third of the team's scoring and nearly 40 percent of the team's rebounds a season ago en route to the most wins in a single-season since the 2010-11 Aggies finished 24-9 and advanced to the NCAA Tournament.
"It wasn't just what that class provided on the court," Gross said. "They developed into great leaders throughout their time in our program and provided a vocal presence on the court. Without a large group of seniors this year, we’ll need our juniors and sophomores to step up and fill that void. They will need to set the tone, give us direction and provide vocal leadership for this team. I’m confident in our players and eager to help mold that leadership throughout the next month.”
They all got the chance to bring together those talents -- and feel out those new roles -- for the first time competitively on Monday, running through drills at both ends of the court before going five-on-five with the fervor of a mid-season practice. For the first time out, Gross came away impressed.
"This team is already developing a closeness and a unity -- something, as a program, that we stress a lot," Gross said. "Building strong relationships is so important to our staff and allows our players to compete and challenge each other on the court. I enjoyed watching our team compete today. Players like Rachel and Pele are showing the younger players the level, the urgency, and the intensity, they need to bring to every single drill. And the freshmen are not shying away from the competition. They got after it today.”
It's a highly decorated group of four signees that includes front court stalwarts Emma Gibb, a three-time all-state selection from McMinnville, Ore., and Northern California native Nina Bessolo (Hayward, Calif.), who helped Castro Valley HS to a section title as a senior, along with two-time area player of the year Sophia Song (Monterey Park, Calif.) and local standout Brittany Nguyen, who helped lead Pleasant Grove HS to a CIF Division I NorCal Championship as a sophomore.
Accolades aside, it can sometimes be a bit of a chore to mesh a veteran group with an incoming class, but this hasn't been the case for Gross and the rest of her staff, as the four freshmen have embraced the challenge and melded seamlessly with the returning Aggies.
"Being together for the summer really helped with our chemistry," Gross said. "Our upperclassmen have done a great job reaching out to the freshmen, helping them feel comfortable here. We, obviously, still have a lot of work to do to get our chemistry where is needs to be, but I’m excited about our progress.”
UC Davis opens the season with a pair of exhibitions on Oct. 29 against Oregon Tech at 2 p.m., and Nov. 4 against Stanislaus State at 7 p.m., before officially tipping off the year at home against Portland on Nov. 11 at 7 p.m. The Aggies play eight of their first 10 games within the friendly confines of The Pavilion before embarking on a six-game road trip to close out the calendar year and ring in the New Year with Big West play.
"We've talked a lot about our goals as a team and how we really want to set the bar high for ourselves," Gross said. "However, we are also very aware that it's only October and we can't win a Big West championship today. We have to start building proper habits, really focusing on the details and, more than anything, be 100 percent committed to our defense. I’m excited that we have a group of competitors that enjoys each other and has fun playing together. I think that's going to translate to a lot of success on the court."
Season tickets for UC Davis women's basketball are now available. Reserve your seats online by clicking here, visiting the Athletics Ticket Office at Aggie Stadium, Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m.-5 p.m., or by calling (530) 752-AGS1 (2471).