By Diana Viera
Citing veteran leaders who helped create a more cohesive unit, the Dons carved out a third place finish in the Orange Empire Conference, possibly punching a ticket to the playoffs a year after enduring a losing season.
“As a team I think we definitely had more team chemistry then we did last year,” sophomore Guard Rachel Cain said. “We had a lack of that, which resulted in a bad record.”
The Dons finished 6-4 in conference, behind powerhouse Cypress College, which tied for the conference’s best record with Irvine Valley College at 8-2. Santa Ana College finished with a 17-9 record. The team bested overall records of 15-15 in the 2013-14 season, while winning eight more games than its 9-19 finish last season.
Because conference records matter most, the Dons coaching staff and holdover players sought to erase the sting of a 3-9 conference record, in a year where it won one conference game on the road, while failing to stitch back-to-back wins in regional play.
Not so this season, where a budding powerhouse rose from the holdovers and new recruits. Freshman forward Blaysen Varnadoe and freshman guard Taylor Ivicevic led the Dons to a four-game winning streak against conference rivals, avenging an earlier season loss to Fullerton College.
Ivicevic scored 23 points and Varnadoe grabbed 12 rebounds Feb. 11, as the Dons dismantled the Hornets, 75-57 to cap the season. Cain added 16 points, converting four of 10 three pointers.
The Dons sustained its first losing streak, beginning at the hands of the Hornets with a turnover-marred 84-70 loss at home on Jan. 20. Despite Varnadoe’s 19 rebounds and Ivicevic’s 20 points, Santa Ana College lost a close game on the road vs. first place Cypress, 81-75. The weeklong road struggles continued with a 79-63 loss to second place Irvine Valley College on Jan. 27. SAC hasn’t lost since.
“You know they showed up as individuals, from any school they were playing at and they may have played against each other, they may have known each other through club basketball or whatever but they enjoy each other’s company whether it be on the court or off the court.” Assistant Coach Tom Trokey said. “I think when you get that tight togetherness, it’s tough to beat. It’s tough to beat.”
Freshman Point Guard Tori Liebel really didn’t know what to expect coming to play at the college level and noticed a big change in team dynamics with something different than her previous years in high school.
“I didn’t really know what to expect because I came in a little later. I just like how everyone is just really close on the team and how we all can talk to each other basically about anything. It’s refreshing because it wasn’t like that in my high school,” Liebel said.
The Dons will need to lean on their closeness to close out the season against the two teams that have pestered them recently. Santa Ana College will close out conference play with back-to-back home games against the Cypress College Chargers and Irvine Valley College Lasers.
“We have to play our game at our pace and focus on our own selves. That’s the way won the whole year, that’s the way we’ll continue to win, there’s no secret for us,” Head Women’s Basketball Coach Flo Luppani said. “I think that our magic ingredient is our togetherness and our symmetry.”
With focusing on the games ahead against the Chargers and Lancers, Varnadoe and Ivicevic both agree that they will need to mentally prepare themselves and focus more during games.
“I’m gonna focus on not fouling out and just being strong and confident when I’m playing.” Ivicevic said.
As a team, Varnadoe hopes to run a strong defense against the Lancers due to the fact that the Lancers have a strong offense.
“I think we need to play a really good defense because they run a really good offense and I think we need to be mentally there because last time we played them they beat us by a lot but we weren’t mentally prepared. We need to mentally prepare ourselves for IVC,” Varnadoe said.
With the next final two games being against the two schools battling for first place, the Dons won’t let their reputation get to them during the games.
“We just have to play our own game and not let their reputation let them get to how we play because they’re in first place,” Ivicevic said.
But in many ways, the coaching staff has felt that they’ve done their job, win or lose, because of how the players embraced their teammates, and because of how they have worked together towards a common goal.
“It’s been one of the most enjoyable seasons I’ve had as a coach, and I’ve been a coach for a really long time,”Head Coach Flo Luppani said.