Change. Uncertainty. Disappointment. These three words summed up the women’s basketball team following the 2015-16 season. A team that had such high expectations going into the season ultimately fell short of their goal to win a national championship. After starting out strong and racing to a 5-0 start, the Sea Lions finished with a 19-10 record overall and a 12-8 record in the PacWest, ultimately concluding with a 70-77 loss to Academy of Art in their only matchup in the PacWest Championships. Perhaps the biggest storyline of that entire season however, was losing their longtime head Coach Bill Westphal.
Westphal had been coaching the women’s team since 1999 and had a record of 338-171 (66.4% winning percentage). With Westphal having decided to retire and the season over, the search for a new head coach was on.
Enter Lisa Faulkner, who was hired last March and brought with her an extensive resume. Faulkner played Division I basketball for UC Irvine for two seasons and then transferred to Vanguard University. At Vanguard, Faulkner was the NAIA co-Player of the Year in 2005 and a two-time All-American, helping Vanguard reach the Elite Eight in both seasons. After graduating, Faulkner’s coaching career began at Vanguard, and would continue at Northern Arizona University, University of Denver and Boston College.
Coming to Point Loma, Faulkner knew that she had big shoes to fill in replacing Westphal. Known for her intensity and competitiveness, Faulkner’s main desire was not to have any let up in play from the team.
That offseason brought a lot change, including an entirely new coaching staff and a new culture. Faulkner’s staff included new additions of Bo Brewer, Walt Simon and Matt Armstrong. A fresh atmosphere and new culture were put in place but it did not come without growing pains.
Assistant Coach Bo Brewer, who has known Coach Faulkner for eight years, knew that it would take some time to get familiar with each other. “There were some growing pains at first, adjusting to a different type of discipline and accepting Coach Faulkner’s philosophy,” said Brewer. “Holding ourselves accountable and demanding more from ourselves every day in practice were what we emphasized from the start.”
Coach Faulkner knew that she had a talented team and from the first day she arrived at Point Loma, she set the bar high. Junior forward Roya Rustamzada said it best “She held us to a higher standard, more was expected of us. At first it was us buying into it, and know that she knows what she is doing.”
Point Loma started the 2016-2017 season with a 61-57 win over Cal Poly Pomona and were undefeated through the first four games. Senior point guard Anna Vietry attributed the early success to the accountability that Coach Faulkner instilled in the team. “Coach believed in us and knew that we could not only be a good team but a great team. Thirty-point wins were not satisfying when we knew that we weren’t playing our best basketball and that mindset has helped better this team.”
That new mindset helped Point Loma achieve a 23-4 record and 17-3 record in PacWest conference play. The Sea Lions were 14-1 at home and had two nine-game winning streaks. Point Loma outscored opponents by 17.5 points per game this season which more than tripled last season’s scoring margin. In addition to outscoring their opponents, the Sea Lions were also out rebounding their opponents while improving their assist-to-turnover ratio this season.
Alumni and former player Jordan Ligons weighed in on the team this season. “They are killing it this year. I think it is a mixture of Coach Faulkner’s new offensive and defensive systems and the senior leadership; the seniors on the team were hungry for a winning season this year and they deserve every single one. The defensive aggressiveness is a wonderful sight to see. I absolutely love how they are getting after it on defense. Switching up defenses on different possessions and causing pressure plays a huge role in creating their offense. They are putting up some high numbers on the scoreboard and I think that has been a major factor.”
Junior forward, Roya Rustamzada attributed this season’s on-court improvement to trust. “Anyone on our team is a threat and I have confidence in [my] teammate’s ability to score. Switching from zone to man-to-man defense helped us a lot this season, it made us stay disciplined and allowed us to get into transition more easily.”
Kassidy Gengenbacher, a senior transfer from Lindenwood University, attributes this season’s success to on-the-court and off-the-court chemistry. “On the court we know each other’s tendencies, so Roya will know where I will be at and the same thing with Alex which makes the game easier for me. I know that this sounds cliché but we really are a family. From the first day I got to Point Loma, everyone was super welcoming and always encouraging. They always picked me up even when I messed up or made a mistake which has helped me play better and feel more comfortable.”
That sense of togetherness and accountability propelled Point Loma into a PacWest title contender. They clinched the second seed in the PacWest conference tournament, which is their highest seeding in school history. Following a first round bye, the Sea Lions managed to defeat Hawaii Pacific 90-77 in their PacWest tournament opener. Unfortunately, they would run into the first-seeded juggernaut in Cal Baptist, and a 72-80 loss in the PacWest tournament followed by a 79-85 loss to the same exact opponent in the NCAA West Regional six days later would bring an otherwise tremendous season to a slightly disappointing close.
“This is a very special group especially for me as a head coach in my first season,” said Faulkner in the postgame press conference. “To have people that totally buy-in and a senior group that fought till the very end. I am so proud and grateful for everyone on the team. The journey we went on this year was fun and no one can take those memories away.”
The season may have ended in less-than-perfect fashion, but with Lisa Faulkner at the helm, there is a lot to be excited about in the long-term future for PLNU women’s basketball.