Men's and Women's Hoops Dominant in Return to Court
By Tim Meehan
Sometimes you don’t know what you have until it’s taken away from you.
For both the men’s and women's basketball teams at Cal State San Marcos, not being able to play the game they love for nearly two years was heartbreaking.
The pandemic ended the hopeful NCAA Tournament run for the women’s team as they got the call to end the 2019-20 season while waiting at the airport. Expectations were high for the men’s team to compete for a California Collegiate Athletic Association championship in 2020-21, but the entire season was canceled.
But challenging times turn good leaders into great ones.
Thanks to dedicated and malleable coaching staffs, committed and grateful players, and an athletic department that lists having its teams back through thick and thin among its greatest assets, the Cougars are back this season.
And with a vengeance.
The men’s team is 14-2 headed into its game Thursday at Cal State East Bay and ranked sixth in the Division II NABC poll and ninth in the D2SIDA Men's Basketball Division II Media Poll.
The women’s team has won nine straight and sits at No. 25 in the D2SIDA national rankings with a 13-2 record.
“This is where we’ve been trying to get,” women’s head coach Renee Jimenez said. “And now this is the hard part, too. I’m a builder, but it’s really, really hard to stay at the top. I tell our kids every day, ‘It’s hard to be great.’ You have to grind it out. It’s fun to chase down people and beat them, but it’s harder when you’re being chased, that’s for sure. We’re getting everybody’s A game every night, which has made us a really good team, too.”
B.J. Foster was an assistant coach at CSUSM before being named the head coach in 2016. He points to the culture of the men’s program as the biggest bridge for today’s success, which included 13 straight wins to start this season.
“You're always hoping that your team can be special, but until you actually get them all together and blending talent and blending personalities, that's the work portion of it,” Foster said. “Last year we did a ton of Zoom calls. We had a lot of good discussions on what winning cultures look like and how players can take more ownership to develop that culture. We studied coach John Wooden's Pyramid of Success and gave each of the guys an opportunity to speak. It was hearing it from them and what cultures they've been a part of that were successful and cultures that were not successful and why.
“We tried to build that in our guys to take some ownership and develop some leadership this year so that if we could emphasize all the details on the court, we could play together and play as one. It's really paid off.”
The women’s team opened this season with a convincing win at Point Loma Nazarene University.
Then came the CSUSM Hoops Classic, which started with a 71-50 win over Seattle Pacific. A 2-0 record to begin to the campaign was just what the doctor ordered after 20 months without a competitive game.
The second CSUSM Hoops Classic game against Western Washington was expected to be tough, and it was. The Cougars lost 78-73 as they couldn’t overcome a bad start.
“They were better than us that night,” Jimenez said.
The Cougars returned to their winning ways a week later with two straight victories before another hiccup, this time a 64-56 loss at the hands of Cal State East Bay.
While previous Cougars teams may have allowed discouragement to take over, this team is iron toughened by fire.
“Our team camaraderie, work ethic and unselfishness is what makes our team special,” said senior captain Akayla Hackson, who is averaging a team-high 16.7 points per game. “We genuinely love and want each other to succeed. This is a concept that starts from the top and trickles down. Our coaches have been great leaders in setting the standard of what they want in a program. By doing this, not only will this team excel, but all the teams to come will also have what it takes. They have started a legacy here at Cal State San Marcos that I am honored to be a part of.”
Since the loss to Cal State East Bay on Dec. 4, the Cougars have won nine straight, including an 82-54 victory over Cal State Monterey Bay last Saturday.
They’re back at it on the road Thursday, and it’s a biggie.
The Cougars get another shot at Cal State East Bay, and there’s extra motivation for this one.
“It's been circled on our calendar since the day after, they can't stop talking about it,” said Jimenez, who began her coaching career at Stanford under the tutelage of Hall of Famer Tara VanDerveer. “I mean they've watched it like 90 million times, as have I. I don't even remember the date of the game. There's not a week that goes by that it's not referenced. Whether it's the coaches, whether it's the players. There's not a kid on our team right now that doesn't understand what Feb. 3 means to them. So that'll be a fun one.”
The men’s team, meanwhile, ran off 13 straight wins to open the season before they were tripped up.
The first loss was a 74-64 overtime contest at Cal State San Bernardino in which they hit zero field goals and one free throw in the extra period.
“We look at that game as a game that was our third overtime game in a row and on the road,” said Foster, the son of longtime Point Loma Nazarene University coach Ben Foster. “Our defense was really good in that game. We just missed a lot of easy shots like layups, and I don’t know if it was a little fatigue or what, but we looked at it as just a missed opportunity. We feel real strongly that we've played all the teams that are supposedly the best in the west region, and we feel really confident about ourselves and what we can do moving forward.”
Next came a strong 75-69 win against San Francisco State, before losing 71-69 to Cal State Monterey Bay on Jan. 29. Foster was not at the game after testing positive for COVID-19 during the week.
Foster isn’t worried for a second about his team’s ability to bounce back after two losses in the past three games.
“We're a tough team,” he said. “We've got all the ingredients of what tough teams have. And when things aren't necessarily going right, we still compete. When we get curveballs thrown at us, we don't make excuses, we just compete. That's the culture we were after. These guys like one another, they like coming to practice, they like competing, they like what we're doing. They've taken some ownership in it.”
The success of both teams didn’t come overnight, of course.
There were Zoom meetings, individual workouts and a lot of simply being patient for opportunities to return.
The current run came as part dedication to hard work and part motivation to get something back that was lost for more than a year and a half.
“But I feel like (the 2019-20) season hasn't ended yet,” said Jimenez, who was pregnant with twins when the world shut down in March 2020. “I feel like it's just an extended one. I never quite felt like we were starting over. That’s been really cool for me as a coach to see they didn't come back out of shape. They didn't forget the plays. They came back ready to go. It’s, ‘Let's win the conference. Let's get back to the regional and let's see what we're about.’ So that's what's been really cool with this group. It's been fun.”
Players involved in both programs have developed a significantly stronger appreciation for being with their teammates. For being led by their mentors. And for the game of basketball itself.
“Our team's appreciation has definitely grown after the COVID-19 quarantine,” said Hackson, who is majoring in computer science. “The season can end at any moment due to COVID-19, and it's scary. We talk about the possibility of the season ending often in practice and use it as fuel to compete at our maximum ability. We also acknowledge the damage COVID-19 could do to our season if we were to get COVID-19 ourselves. As seen all over the country, teams are having to forfeit games due to COVID mass spreading through their teams. Forfeiting games could ruin your record and could be the difference in making the NCAA tournament.
“For this reason, we have done an amazing job of keeping each other safe (not having to forfeit any games so far this season). We have all bought into this team and realize the sacrifices we must make to be great.”
Hackson isn’t the only player whose leadership and solid play have been counted on heavily. Junior guards Dynnah Buckner (14.5 points per game) and Kelsey Forrester (11.7 points per game) have contributed mightily, as has sophomore forward Jordan Vasquez, who is second in scoring (13.1 points per game) and leads the team in rebounding (7.7 rebounds per game).
On the men’s side, a relentless shutdown defense keeps the Cougars in every game. Guards Jayce McCain and Blake Seits set the tone on and off the court.
McCain, a psychology sophomore from Sacramento, averages 13.8 points and 5.1 rebounds per game while shooting 47%from the field.
“I think the most impressive thing is that we all get along so well,” said McCain, who was named to the CCAA All-Academic team as a redshirt freshman in 2019-20. “We have players coming from all different kinds of backgrounds, but we all fit together somehow. We can just sit in the locker room and have the time of our lives. We have promised each other that no matter what, we are going to buy into our winning culture. No matter the circumstance we are in, we all have the same goal.”
Seits, a redshirt senior from nearby Ramona who is majoring in business administration and marketing, is averaging a team-best 14.6 points per game along with 5.1 rebounds.
Impressive numbers for guards, particularly the rebounding numbers. But if you speak to Foster, he’s quick to tell you their value goes well beyond the box score.
“On the court, other guys have really stepped up their leadership as well, but they're two of our best players,” Foster said. “And when your best players care a lot, the people coming in, they have to care a little bit more. The details are just real important to them. And so it became important to everyone else. It's an infectious attitude. And it's really paid off. I mean, those two have been absolutely terrific.”
Jimenez, too, doesn’t hesitate when talking about how all her players have stepped up to become leaders on the court, in the weight room and in the classroom.
But perhaps what has impressed her even more is witnessing the increased respect her team has developed for the unique opportunity of being college athletes.
“They appreciate sweating in the gym,” Jimenez said. “They appreciate lifting weights. They appreciate being away from home. Everything about it. Because a lot of these kids have been playing since they were 7, 8, 9 years old. And they never had a break. And so to have this taken away I think was kind of a restart button for them. It also made them appreciate all those days where they used to come in the gym like, ‘Oh, I'm so tired. I don't want to practice. I don't want to do that.’ Because now, as coaches, we're constantly asking them to remember where we were 21 months ago. We don't know what tomorrow is going to bring. So let's come in every day and just appreciate each moment.”
Eric Breier, Public Affairs Specialist
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