When the Cuesta College women’s basketball team rolled into Christmas Break in mid-December, the Cougars had already surpassed their win total from the previous year and it appeared head coach Ron Barba was directing an impressive program turnaround.
With preparations for a post-Christmas tournament at Grossmont College underway and the start of Western State Conference play lingering on the horizon, Barba was engulfed in a resurgent season. Adding to the personal excitement was Barba’s daughter, Courtney, a freshman guard developing into Cuesta’s defensive stopper on a new-look roster brimming with potential.
It was around that time the seventh-year head coach received a phone call that would change his life.
Barba learned he had contracted endocarditis — described as inflammation of the inner layer of the heart — following a procedure he had over the summer. He was transferred from Marian Regional Medical Center in Santa Maria by ambulance to UCLA Medical Center, where he underwent major heart surgery soon after. Barba had a complete replacement of his mitral and aortic valves, and he would spend 31 days attached to a pump that ran antibiotics through his system.
“Trying to realize and process all this was pretty hard,” Barba said this week. “Knowing I had these issues, but yet I wanted to get back into coaching. And I will say this: coaching got me out of that bed, just those girls and what I needed to do. My goal was to get back by the end of the year.”
Barba would eventually return for the final few games of the season, but the Cougars weren’t the same team they were in December. Cuesta was 10-4 when Barba was sidelined, and it went 2-12 the rest of the way to finish 12-16 overall. The Cougars won one of their 10 conference games and finished last in the final Western State Conference standings.
Barba said he worked closely with athletic director Bob Mariucci to keep things running smoothly in his absence. Second-year assistant Eric Marsh took over on the bench, while Barba followed game scores on his phone from a hospital bed.
The team chemistry that was a key strength early faded, Barba said, and standout point guard Tawny Lino suffered a season-ending injury Feb. 4. Cuesta lost seven straight games to end the year.
“It just kind of took the team backwards instead of forward, and it’s not a reflection of them,” Barba said. “I think it’s a reflection of the timing of everything. The players that got injured, losing Tawny Lino was huge. I think that really hurt.”
Freshman Madison Collins did her part to keep the Cougars moving in the right direction. The 5-foot-9 guard from Australia averaged 14.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.6 steals as a 28-game starter and was a first-team all-conference selection.
Lino, who upped her scoring average from 13.1 to 16.0 in conference play, led the team in both assists (3.8) and steals (3.4) per contest. She was an honorable mention all-conference honoree despite missing the final four games of the season.
Twin sisters Taylor Neal and Dolores Neal — former Mission Prep standouts — combined to average nearly 19 points and 13 rebounds as the only sophomores on the roster. And Courtney Barba, who learned of her father’s illness at the same time as her teammates, went on to start all 28 games, averaging 10.9 points, and she was second in the conference with 84 steals.
“I kind of feel that there’s a bitter taste in their mouth,” Barba said. “They’ll all tell you it was a missed opportunity.”
The Cougars will likely get their shot at redemption next winter with the majority of the roster returning. Barba said he’s already started running and lifting weights again, adding that “I’m better than I was before.”
His voice might be a little more rough and crackly than it was in December, but it’s clear Barba hasn’t lost an ounce of motivation.
If anything, it’s the opposite.
“You’ve got to realize time is quick here, and it’s precious,” Barba said. “I think when you have that, it opens your eyes to life. You don’t worry or sweat the small things anymore.”
Cuesta College women’s basketball at a glance
Record: 12-16 overall, 1-9 Western State Conference
All-conference selections: G Madison Collins, G Tawny Lino
Noteworthy: Courtney Barba ranked second in the conference with 82 steals