An already trying season for the Cuesta College women’s basketball team gets increasingly more difficult this week when the Cougars open Western State Conference play on the road against No. 7 Ventura College on Wednesday night.
Cuesta brings a 5-11 record into its conference opener, having lost eight of its past nine games by an average of more than 26 points per contest. More so than any of his previous six seasons, head coach Ron Barba has had to adjust on the fly with a young group hindered by injury-related attrition.
“I try to tell the kids nobody cares about excuses,” Barba said. “In college, they don’t really care if you have three or four kids hurt. They’re trying to get a W.”
When the season began in early November, Kendra Losa was the only returning player from last year’s team that finished 23-8 overall and placed second in the Western State Conference. Even with some intriguing incoming freshmen, Barba knew it would be an uphill climb to secure a fourth-consecutive postseason berth.
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After starting the year 4-3, the Cougars haven’t been able to sustain a starting lineup because of a series of injuries to key players, many of them starters. Cuesta’s leading scorer through the first seven contests was Inglewood native Boomie Pierre, a talented 5-foot-9 guard who has been dismissed from the team and will not return.
Maci Branstetter suffered a serious leg injury during a Dec. 3 win over Victor Valley, causing her to miss the Cougars’ next nine games. Barba said Monday that Branstetter has recovered and is cleared to practice, though her status for Wednesday’s game was unclear.
“Having her back will help tremendously,” Barba said.
Former Mission Prep standout Connor Storlie also injured her knee last week in a 93-55 loss to Citrus College. The 6-foot forward has dealt with a series of injuries throughout her career, including a torn ACL in high school and a concussion that forced Storlie to sit out three games in mid-December.
Barba said Storlie, averaging better than eight points, four rebounds and three assists per game, will be evaluated on a day-to-day basis moving forward.
Templeton graduate Autumn Russell has also missed four of the team’s 16 games. She leads Cuesta in rebounding at 10 per game and is second in scoring, averaging 8.6 points per contest. Former San Luis Obispo High standout Biba Kirschner is one of four Cougars to play in every game, and she averages a team-high 10.4 points per game.
Cuesta would need to be as close to full strength as possible to contend with a historically dominant Ventura program. The Pirates (14-4) have won seven CCCAA state championships since 1996, the most recent coming in 2014.
“They just run their system very well,” Barba said. “By the time they hit conference, they’re usually starting to look like the solid Ventura team that they are.”
Here’s a look at each of the other six teams in the North Division:
The Pirates are expected to be the class of the Western State Conference North Division again this winter. An overtime loss against No. 2 Mt. San Jacinto on Dec. 30 ended Ventura’s eight-game winning streak, a stretch in which the Pirates outscored opponents by an average margin of more than 21 points per contest. Sophomore guard Aubri Smith scores 12.6 points per game to lead Ventura, which is 45-1 in conference play over the past four seasons.
Allan Hancock (11-4)
Freshman guard Syenna Ramirez is among the top scorers in the state and one of the better all-around players in the conference. Ramirez averages more than 18 points per game, shooting 42.7 percent from the field and 41.7 percent from behind the 3-point line, to go with 5.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists. The Bulldogs started the year 8-1, but the team has gone 3-3 over its past six games.
After reinstating men’s and women’s basketball in 2014, the Condors struggled their way to a 2-10 finish in conference play under head coach Ron McClurkin. Oxnard now has one of the older teams in the North Division with nine sophomores on the roster, including leading scorer Juliette Marquez at 14.6 points per game. The Condors lacked size last year, and that could be an issue again this season with only two players listed taller than 5-foot-8.
Santa Barbara City College (9-7)
Having won five of their past six games — all by at least 12 points — few teams are playing as well as the Vaqueros heading into the first week of conference play. Freshman Destinee King has been a force through the first two months of the season. The 5-10 forward averages 16.9 points and 10.6 rebounds per game while shooting better than 45 percent from the field. During Santa Barbara’s final nonconference game, King scored 25 points on 12-for-17 shooting and pulled down 13 rebounds in a 76-64 victory over Glendale.
Head coach Kenny Plummer is leading a team with only eight players on the roster, likely making it difficult to compete with the top programs in the North Division on a weekly basis. The Raiders learned as much during a 40-point loss to Ventura last month, when the team was held to 13.4 percent shooting (9 of 67). Aside from that humbling defeat, Moorpark’s scoring has been balanced early on, with sophomores Cydney Bolton, Sydney Perry, Dagmar Ramirez and freshman Emma Johnson all averaging more than 12 points per contest.
Los Angeles Pierce (2-9)
Not much went right for the Bulls in 2015. L.A. Pierce finished 1-11 against conference opponents last season, and it’s off to a similar start this winter. Since beating L.A. Harbor on Nov. 27, the Bulls have lost seven consecutive games by an average of 26.4 points per contest. Hannah Massey’s team-high 11.7 points per game might be the lone bright spot offensively. In 11 games this season, L.A. Pierce is shooting 29.1 percent from the field, 18.2 percent from behind the 3-point line and 49.7 percent from the free-throw line.