PASADENA (Nov. 15, 2017) – The winds of change are in full effect for the Caltech women's basketball program in the 2017-18 season.
For a second consecutive year, the Beavers will be down a leading scorer. Kate Lewis '17 departs the program as the second all-time leading scorer with 1,245 career points and second leading rebounder with 768 rebounds over a four-year career. The prior year saw the departure of Stephanie Wong '16, the program's all-time leading scorer. While Lewis chasing Wong's scoring record in 2016-17 made for a compelling storyline, a new narrative unfolds for the women's team in 2017-18, a year that will bring new leadership on and off the court.
Bridgette Reyes became the Beavers' new women's basketball head coach on May 12, 2017 and has since established herself as a no-nonsense basketball mind. A Vanguard University graduate, Reyes places great emphasis on defense, strong character and fundamentals but above all else believes in the talent and individuals she is getting the opportunity to work with.
"This group is a special group," Reyes said. "They have a lot of potential and I think that we are not going be the same as we were. We want to build on the foundation laid in the previous years and give ourselves a chance to compete with every other team in the league on a wide scale.
"We have what it takes. These kids are the most intelligent kids in the country but they're also really skilled athletically. They can have both. This group has the potential to be all it can be and it is our job as coaches to get them to where they can do both and compete every day."
The cupboard is far from bare for Reyes and Assistant Coach Reyes Zaragoza. The Beavers are returning a dynamic sophomore back-court pair in SCIAC Newcomer of the Year Grace Peng (San Ramon, Calif. / California) and Samantha D'Costa (San Jose, Calif. / St. Francis). The Beavers leaned on Peng heavily as a freshman, as her 38.8 minutes per game positioned her as the third most active player in the entire NCAA while playing every minute in every SCIAC game, the only player in the conference to do so. The point guard's 14.6 points per game and 2.0 steals per game also accounted for top-five conference finishes. D'Costa played a similar role, seeing 36.8 minutes per game as more of a slashing combo guard. She tied for fourth in the conference with 2.9 free throws per game and found a way to contribute to the Beavers in nearly every statistical category.
The next step for the duo will be allowing their play to influence the team around them and Reyes is eager for the chance to make good on their potential.
"Sam and Grace have to take a step up in their performance," Reyes said. "They had great freshman years but it's not just about them and it's not just about points. It's about how are we elevating everyone else around us and how are we becoming better leaders and better teammates. I think Grace particularly has only gotten better vocally and emotionally for our team. People don't expect it out of her because she is more of a quiet type but she is speaking more in practice and that is super exciting."
Juniors Elizabeth Eiden (White Plains, N.Y. / Holy Child) and Nika Haleftiras (San Diego, Calif. / Our Lady of Peace) will also be asked to take on more of a leadership role as the team's two oldest players. The 6-foot-3 Eiden primarily came off the bench to begin the year but slowly began to earn more starts and had no trouble making her presence felt even when serving a limited role. She led the SCIAC with 2.6 blocks per game and tied for third with 7.9 rebounds per game. The junior will not find an equal in the SCIAC to her size so she will be asked to take on a brunt of the responsibility in the paint with the potential to become a scoring force against physically overmatched teams. Haleftiras, meanwhile played the role of one of the Beavers' most efficient shooters and judicious ball handlers last year but an arm injury forced her out of the team's final 10 games. The guard will continue to look for high-percentage shots and hopefully get to the free throw line early and often, as she led the team in free throw percentage as a sophomore (.769%).
"Nika and Liz and are like our team moms and awesome leaders already," Reyes said. "I also think they have a lot of potential as players. I think they have skill and desire and I really have to push them not only so they realize their potential but bring the competitiveness out of them so they can reach a new level."
The Beavers will also need production out of the rest of the returners, junior Madeline Schemel (Westport, Conn. / Staples), sophomore Alexa Lauinger (Ortonville, Mich. / Brandon) and junior Madelyn Stroder (Springfield, Mo. / Greenwood Laboratory). At 6-foot, Schemel played a role in a Beavers front court that also featured two six-footers. With Lewis gone, Schemel will be asked to work in tandem with Eiden to make up for Lewis' numbers beneath the glass. Similarly, Lauinger will be asked to handle a similar role. A three-sport athlete and current holder of the Caltech single-season kills record in volleyball, Lauinger's strength down low and competitive spirit should continue to pay off in spades. Stroder, a two-sport athlete who participated in the women's soccer team's inaugural season brings with her a similar team-oriented mindset.
"If [Schemel] comes to compete every day we are going to be a great basketball team," Reyes said. She has the potential to get double-doubles and do the little things. It's just up to her to step up into that role. Stroder works hard every day, wants to learn and is very coachable and she will be kind of our 'bench mob leader.' As for Alexa, I love having her. You can feel her energy both vocally and physically and it elevates our team to compete."
Not to be outdone, the Beavers are bringing in a three-woman freshman class, all of which are expected to play key roles in the team's success this year. Kali Drango (Lake Oswego, Ore. / Lake Oswego) can play several different positions and comes to the Beavers as a four-year varsity letterwinner at Lake Oswego High School. Her versatility will make her a key component to Reyes' vision for the program. Lauren Suezaki (San Ramon, Calif. / California) played with Peng at California High School and while shorter than Drango also offers some positional flexibility in addition to some added physicality. Amy Wang (Colorado Springs, Col. / Pine Creek) will provide the Beavers with key depth scoring and can do some damage with her jump shot.
"I really like our freshmen this year," Reyes said. "Kali is a high-basketball IQ kid, works hard and is able to make basketball plays when things break down. She is vocal, doesn't back down and we're lucky to have her. Lauren is tough, physical and vocal and should be able to play any position for us. Amy comes in with not as much experience but gets better every day in practice and works hard in her off time."
Last year's Beavers won four games and took two SCIAC games from Pomona-Pitzer Colleges in addition to pushing the University of La Verne to quadruple overtime back in January. As much as Lewis' contributions will be missed, she is the still the only graduating loss for the program. Moreover, Caltech will not graduate a single senior this season, which means Reyes will have plenty of time with added benefit of next year's recruiting class to foster a winning culture in this group of women.
The team's combination of size, leadership, skill, athleticism and growing mental toughness and competitiveness should go a long way towards winning games in the short term and long term. Reyes believes the desire to win is inside each of them and that it is her job to bring it out of them on gameday.
"The positive of getting to work with this exact group for two years is they are going to know exactly what I want and how I want it done," Reyes said. "I do think we have a good foundation of leaders both in upperclassmen and underclassmen and I just think if we can be consistent and compete every day we can give ourselves a chance in every game we play. That's the ultimate goal. We want to take our opponent into the last five minutes of the fourth quarter and give ourselves the best chance to win.
"That's why we play the game. We don't play the game to show up on the court. We play to compete."
Reyes and the Beavers will open the season on Saturday, Nov. 18 when they host Benedictine University at Mesa for a 5 p.m. game.