PORT ANGELES — The Peninsula College women’s basketball team bring back a lot of firepower from last year’s North Division champion squad and the team has set its goals high this year. Not only are they looking at repeating as the North champion, they area gunning for at least a Final Four appearance in the Northwest Athletic Conference (NWAC).
But, first they have to get healthy.
The women return center Brianna Fitzgerald (6-0, Las Vegas), forwards Kameron Bowen (5-9, Anchorage, Alaska) and Logan Luke (5-9, Honolulu) and guards Casandra White (5-9, Modesto, Calif.), Leilani Padilla (Las Vegas) as well as Neah Bay’s Gina McCaulley (Neah Bay). Forward Sunshine Vicente (Honolulu) is also back, though she is out at the moment with an injury.
That’s 44.4 points and 25.5 rebounds a game coming back from an extremely well-balanced team that went 19-9 (including 11-3 in the North), won 11 straight at one point and made it to the Elite Eight of the NWAC Tournament in 2018-19.
Padilla was the Pirates’ leading scorer last year at 10.5 points per game, but the Pirates beat teams with their balance, with seven women averaging more than 5 points a game.
The women are 2-0 this year so far with wins against Southwest Oregon (59-50) and Mount Hood last Sunday (75-70).
Last season’s squad was a young, freshman-laden team that took a while to get hot. Before that 11-game winning streak, the Pirates were just 8-8. Coach Alison Crumb is hopeful that this year’s more experienced squad will come together more quickly.
“We were so freshman-heavy, it really took a while for the team to understand what to expect. I hope this year, it doesn’t take as long.”
This year’s team has the two wins, but has also had a rash of injuries, suiting up just seven players for Southwest Oregon.
“Sunshine was out, Kameron was out, [newcomer] Mackenna Sargent (6-0 Stansbury Park, Utah) is out until January with a broken foot, Quinlyn Ontiveros (5-11, Burley, Idaho) is coming back from a concussion,” Crumb said. “We’re got quite a few people not on the floor. We’re wounded warriors.”
Crumb would very much like to get some of those players back quickly because the Pirates have a difficult beginning to their nonconference schedule. Peninsula play the defending NWAC champion Wenatchee Valley twice in tournaments at Pierce College and Tacoma College. They also play the NWAC runner-up Umpqua in Tacoma and one of the other 2019 Final Four teams — Lane College — in Tacoma.
In the two games this year, players who have already stood out are Padilla and newcomer Kayla Johnson, a 5-6 guard. Padilla led the Pirates in the Mount Hood win with 24 points, while Johnson (who goes by KJ), led the team in the SW Oregon game with 14 points, plus another 13 points against Mount Hood.
A player Crumb is really excited about is White, who is actually a third-year player for the Pirates. She was forced to redshirt her freshman season due to major knee surgery. Crumb said White was still recovering from the knee surgery last year as she averaged a solid 7.2 points a game. However, she is 100 percent back this year and it’s showed as she scored in doubles figures in two straight games, pouring in 12 against SW Oregon and 16 against Mount Hood.
“Now, we’re finally starting to see the old Cas,” Crumb said. She also said White, who is student body president at Peninsula, is a “high-character kid.”
Crumb expects Johnson to be a big contributor.
“KJ is so athletic, she causes a lot of problems for teams. We haven’t had a player with that kind of speed since Imani Smith [who played up until 2015].”
Amari Brown (5-6, Anchorage, Alaska) is another new freshman and another 5-6 guard. Crumb called her a great leader.
The team also has a local connection, with McCaulley starring for Neah Bay and putting in a solid performance her freshman year at Peninsula.
Another local player on the roster is Cheyenne Wheeler, a 2018 Port Angeles High School Grad and former Roughrider. Wheeler will redshirt this year for the Pirates.
“It’s been really awesome for us to have that local relationship. Gina is just a great kid. I enjoy her maturity. Both local players are high-level teammates. It’s worked out really well for us.”
Crumb said the Pirates don’t have much size this year. Fitzgerald and Sargent are the only players who are 6-0.
But Crumb doesn’t see this as a detriment.
“We’re undersized and fast. We’re going up and down the court and in-your-face defense. We’re athletic at every position and we’re going to use that,” she said.
The goal for the women is back-to-back North championships. Crumb isn’t shy about setting it.
“We’ll be in the conversation as one of the best in the North if not the best. We have to get better and prove it,” Crumb said. “We’ve set a standard of three [division] championships in five years.”
It will be a while before local basketball fans get to see the women play. They play at tournaments in Wenatchee, Lakewood and Tacoma through December. Then they finally open with a home game Jan. 4 against Centralia before entering North Division play.