When the Cuesta College women’s basketball team begins the 32nd annual Phillips 66 Tournament on Thursday night, the Cougars will pursue their fourth consecutive home tournament title with a young team fighting to overcome injuries.
Sixth-year head coach Ron Barba has led the program to increased victories in each of his first five seasons at Cuesta, going from a 5-20 record in 2011 to last year’s 23-8 campaign and a second-place finish in the Western State Conference.
Kendra Losa is the lone sophomore returner from last season, and Barba has incorporated nine freshmen into the mix, including local graduates Connor Storlie (Mission Prep), Biba Kirschner (San Luis Obispo) and Autumn Russell (Templeton).
Barba said he hopes playing at home for the first time this season will help motivate a group that at times has only had six players healthy enough to practice. Guard Angelica Ramirez could miss Thursday’s home opener, while Storlie and Russell are both nursing nagging knee injuries.
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“I’m trying to figure out which kids can get us through the season,” Barba said. “I want to see how we can develop better on defense. I’ve seen it in spurts, but like I said, I just haven’t been able to keep those groups (on the court) long.”
College of the Desert and Hartnell College are scheduled to play the tournament opener at 2 p.m. Thursday, followed by Las Positas College against Allan Hancock at 4 p.m. Monterey Peninsula College plays Los Angeles Pierce College at 6 p.m. and Cuesta will meet Victor Valley College at 8 p.m.
The Cougars (3-3) spent much of November learning on the fly against a series of ranked opponents. All three of Cuesta’s losses have come at the hands of teams ranked in the CCCWBCA preseason polls in Contra College (No. 14, North Region), Irvine Valley (No. 5, South Region) and East Los Angeles (No. 6, South Region).
Those three setbacks were decided by an average of more than 37 points per game.
Barba said chemistry on defense, more consistent shooting and eliminating fouls have been the main focuses in practice, but the injury bug has prevented the Cougars from improving as quickly as the coaching staff might like.
“What can they start doing in a more consistent, positive way?” Barba said. “Once we identify that and we’re able to repeat it, then that’s going to build off and hopefully get us into league somewhere.”
For three straight years, Cuesta has finished second in the Western State Conference, qualifying for the postseason each time. The Cougars have more than a month left before conference play begins, and this weekend could serve as a springboard to another postseason run.
Freshman guard Boomie Pierre leads a balanced scoring attack with an average of 10.4 points per game. Kirschner is second on the team at 9.3, followed by Storlie (8.5), Angela Llaverias (7.3) and Ramirez (7.0).
The 5-foot-11 Russell did not play in the first three games of the season, but she returned as Cuesta’s most efficient rebounder and averages 8.3 per contest.
Without a go-to scorer, the Cougars will rely on consistent contributions from their top five or six players each game. Barba said he would not be surprised to see several players have a “big breakout game” this weekend.
“I see it coming,” Barba said. “I honestly think that Storlie could have a big night for us. Russell could have a big night. But the one that I think could really have the big night would be Boomie.”
Pierre, a 5-9 guard from Inglewood, is the only player to lead Cuesta in scoring more than once this season. She scored 14 points in the Cougars’ victory over Merritt, and turned in a 24-point performance against East Los Angeles on Nov. 21.
Barba said Pierre has “just a ton of athletic ability” and is the type of player capable of scoring 30 or 40 points when she gets into a rhythm.
“She could take a game over in a matter of seconds,” Barba said, “if she just keeps her wits to her.”
Phillips 66 Tournament
2 p.m.: College of the Desert vs. Hartnell College
4 p.m.: Las Positas College vs. Allan Hancock
6 p.m.: Monterey College vs. Los Angeles Pierce College
8 p.m.: Cuesta College vs. Victor Valley College