Cuesta College women’s basketball coach Rob Barba wanted to guide the Cougars in a different direction following last year’s frustrating nine-win season, a noticeable deviation from the program’s established standard.
Barba completely overhauled the roster during the offseason, bringing in 11 new players, including nine freshmen, with the expectation of contending in the Western State Conference and returning to the CCCAA playoffs for the fourth time in the last five years.
So far, things have gone according to plan.
The new-look Cougars have gotten off to a 6-3 start — all three losses coming against top-15 opponents — and will play their first home game Thursday night against College of the Desert in the first round of the 33rd annual Phillips 66 Invitational at Cuesta Gym.
The three-day, eight-team tournament also includes Monterey College, La Positas College, American River Junior College, Allan Hancock, LA Pierce and Hartnell. The tournament semifinals will be held Friday, with the championship game scheduled for 5 p.m. Saturday at Mission Prep High.
“I’ve been really pleased with this group,” said Barba, now in his eighth season at Cuesta. “I think the kids that have come in have done a tremendous job.”
Freshman Madison Collins, a dynamic 5-foot-9 guard from Australia, has emerged as the Cougars’ leading scorer through the first month of the season. She’s averaging 18.7 points on 51.2 percent shooting from the field, to go with 10.7 rebounds and 3.4 steals per contest.
Barba said Collins’ father was born and raised in San Luis Obispo, and the head coach considers her “a local product, even though she’s from Australia.”
Former Mission Prep standouts and twin sisters Taylor and Delores Neal are the only sophomores on the roster, and both have carved out starting roles. Taylor Neal is averaging 14 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.7 steals and 1.2 blocks per game; Delores Neal is contributing 8.1 points and 6.9 rebounds in more than 30 minutes per contest.
Santa Maria native and Pioneer Valley High graduate Tawny Lino took over as the starting point guard and leads the team in assists (4.9) and steals (4.7), while also averaging more than 12 points per game.
Freshman Courtney Barba, Ron’s daughter, rounds out Cuesta’s starting lineup as a versatile, defensive-minded guard. She does a little bit of everything for the Cougars, averaging 11.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.0 steals and 2.7 assists per contest.
Former Atascadero High standout Camille LeBlanc — one of seven players with local ties on this year’s team — has provided a consistent spark as the first player off the bench.
Having five players average double-digit scoring has been one of the biggest surprises, Barba said, and he believes Cuesta’s best basketball is still on the horizon.
Paso Robles High alumnus Gwen Lundy, a 5-10 guard, is expected to be eligible in January, and Barba said she could be a 15-point scorer and the final piece of the Cougars’ rebuilding puzzle.
“I think this team could really take it up another notch,” Barba said. “I don’t think we’ve hit our stride yet. But I’ve seen some good things.”
33rd Annual Phillips 66 Invitational
Thursday’s first-round games
2 p.m. Monterey College vs. Las Positas College
4 p.m. American River Junior College vs. Allan Hancock College
6 p.m. LA Pierce College vs. Hartnell College
8 p.m. College of the Desert vs. Cuesta College