Photo by Michael Wong
PASADENA, Calif. (Nov. 8, 2016) – The departure of a program's all-time leading scorer would temper expectations for most teams the following season, but with nearly every other player returning and four new faces joining the squad, Caltech women's basketball is ready to build on the foundation established last season.
The team-leading 13.2 points per game lost with the graduation of Stephanie Wong certainly will be missed, but with another 1,000-point scorer waiting in the wings, four experienced sophomores ready to take the next step and another four talented newcomers having arrived, the accompanying 13.7 shots per game should be placed in more than capable hands.
"We're an incredibly young team once again, but we also have a strong returning group that saw a lot of minutes last year," Head Coach Sandra Marbut said. "That's going to bode well for the future. After being very thin last season, now we have more opportunities with a few more players to take advantage of our quickness, especially on defense. Everyone will still have to play a lot of minutes, so we'll continue battling fatigue all year, but we should be able to play more to our strengths with this group."
As the only upperclassman on the roster, senior Kate Lewis (San Antonio, Texas / Ronald Reagan) will be charged with leading the exceedingly young team. The SCIAC scoring leader and Second Team All-Conference selection as a sophomore, Lewis is just 77 points from becoming the third player in program history to reach 1,000 in a career and is in striking range of both the all-time points and rebounds crowns, needing 410 points and 239 boards to top the lists.
"Kate is our on-court leader, no question," Marbut said. "She put in some work over the offseason and it shows. She is a real scoring force in the conference and still has room to improve her game to become even more dominant."
The sophomore trio of Elizabeth Eiden (White Plains, N.Y. / Holy Child), Nika Haleftiras (San Diego, Calif. / Our Lady of Peace) and Madeline Schemel (Westport, Conn. / Staples) spent their rookie seasons on a thin roster gaining significant experience, which should pay dividends as they are leaned on more heavily this year. All three averaged between 5.2 to 6.0 points and 4.1 to 5.2 rebounds per game, with a combined 84 assists, 60 steals and 43 blocks. Classmate Madelyn Stroder (Springfield, Mo. / Greenwood Lab.) also returns after appearing in all but two games last season, during which she posted the second-best assist-to-turnover ratio on the team while grabbing eight rebound and making two steals.
"The sophomores are looking great – they have come back with energy and excitement," Marbut said. "Mads has improved probably more than anyone else; she is more physical, assertive and looking for scoring opportunities. Liz is scoring better at the rim and still has a lot of untapped potential. Nika is a returning starter in the backcourt who played well on and off the ball last year. "Tots is working hard to improve every day, and the way she goes about learning and striving is truly an inspiration to every person in our program."
Four newcomers fill out the roster, and while they may not have to play quite as frequently as last year's rookie crop, all four are likely to make a high impact. Grace Peng (San Ramon Calif. / California) arrives as the heir apparent to Wong at the point after a high school career that included two First Team All-League selections. She will be flanked by Samantha D'Costa (San Jose, Calif. / St. Francis) and Jieni Li (Shanghai, China / Shanghai Jiao Tong Univ.), who will vie for time on the wing. D'Costa led her team to the CIF-Central Coast Section Division II title, while Li led first-year BASIS Tucson to second place in its league as an exchange student. Three-sport athlete Alexa Lauinger (Ortonville, Mich. / Brandon) is set to join the team following the conclusion of volleyball season, during which she led the Beavers in both kills and digs.
"The freshmen are working hard and I expect all four to see time to see time and be asked to contribute this season," Marbut said. "Grace has fantastic ball handling skills and will be a big addition to our ability to work in the open court and distribute the ball. Plus, she is plain fun to watch and the type of player who will get better and better as she matures into her game. Sam and Jieni are both slasher, mid-range types who are getting their timing down; Sam is as scrappy and relentless as anyone on the court and Jieni can really shoot the ball. We've just gotten Alexa at practice after volleyball season, but she has already been a valuable addition with her positive energy and constant communication in practice. She will provide a tough, physical body for us on the block."
Caltech's schedule sets up well for a young team to take some time finding its identity while Lewis primarily shoulders the early load. The Beavers will take on several first- or second-year programs to give the eight freshmen and sophomores a chance to learn against comparable experience before getting an early look at the SCIAC with a Dec. 3 matchup vs. Whittier College. The squad also will take a trip to Chicago in mid-December to face Mount Mary University and the Illinois Institute of Technology.
"We're going to be tested early against some other young programs, as well as a few regional foes in our Thanksgiving tournament," Marbut said. "There are some good chances for wins and some slight reaches, which I think we'll be up for, and we'll have some good opportunities in a tough environment on the Chicago trip. Assuming things go right, this is the kind of schedule that will prepare this team to mix it up with the bottom half of the conference as early as this year."
Marbut and the Beavers open the season on Thursday, Nov. 15 at 7:30 p.m. playing host to Benedictine University at Mesa.