LSU women’s basketball scores record wins and strong academics
February 23, 2011
By Darla Martin Tucker
RIVERSIDE, Calif. – (www.lasierra.edu) When you start from zero, the only place to go is up. But La Sierra University’s Golden Eagles women’s basketball team, comprised mainly of freshmen recruits, did more than move ahead from last year’s non-scoring effort--they blasted ahead to tie up the season with record wins while attaining eye-opening academic scores.
La Sierra’s team entered the season last October challenged by their overall lack of varsity experience: eight of the players arrived as freshmen from regional high schools and three came in from junior colleges. Two sisters from last year’s team decided to remain with the Golden Eagles despite the team’s past difficulties, but have remained as ‘red shirts,’ one attaining academic eligibility to play in December and the other in line to play next season.
Eric Thorson, a firefighter/paramedic in Garden Grove, Calif. with a passion for coaching basketball, led La Sierra’s fledgling group this year. The season marked his first foray into university athletics. He arrived on the scene with seven years’ experience taking an Adventist academy team and a Catholic high school basketball team to victory. Thorson led his alma mater, the Orangewood Academy Spartans to a second-place win in the California Interscholastic Federation semi-finals in 1993, and the St. Anthony High School Saints girls’ basketball team in Long Beach to its first CIF victory in 2000. During Thorson’s five-year tenure at St. Anthony, the Saints advanced to the CIF playoffs in all five seasons and won the championship during his fourth year coaching the team. The Saints achieved an overall 105 wins and 38 losses.
Thorson retired in 2001 burnt out from the long hours and intensity of basketball, but after a nine-year hiatus, he jumped back into the coaching scene. He aims to build a solid women’s team at La Sierra over the next two to three years. He’s off to a strong start.
La Sierra’s Golden Eagles ended the season with a record win on Feb. 12 in Phoenix against Arizona Christian University, a foe that trounced the Eagles on their own turf on Jan. 29 before an audience of roughly 480 attendees. This time, the Eagles struck back, nailing the competition 79 to 59, led by freshman Joirdan Jones who scored 32 points. The Golden Eagles’ top-notch performance included significant contributions from several other players. Freshman Natalia Hawthorne added 22 points and seven assists, while junior point guard Melissa Bustamante and freshman Kyrese Montgomery combined for 14 rebounds. Junior Laura Ramos aided the attack with 12 rebounds.
In the end, the team achieved a final season tally of 12 wins and 17 losses, winning seven of their last eight games. They exceeded the previous record of 11 wins achieved by their predecessors in 2004-05. Their hard work puts to rest last season’s record of 0-24, played during the school’s membership in the challenging National Collegiate Athletic Association Division III.
“I’m very proud of our girls, not just tonight, but for the way they played the entire season,” Thorson said following the game against Arizona Christian. “Our defensive rotations were so good we’re going to use that as a model for next year. …Our ultimate goal is to get the championship. We’re two to three years away from that.”
Making the grade
While pushing for winning games, the players managed to stay on top of their schoolwork, achieving an overall grade point average of 3.13, thanks to the drilling of a results-oriented coach, the team’s group efforts and the aid of assistant coaches Ashley Haggerty and Francesca Sivertsen. “We make it clear to them they cannot perform on the court until perform in the classroom,” Thorson said. The women’s basketball program requires its players to participate in study hall sessions whether on the road or at home. Thorson keeps tabs on players’ grades by e-mailing professors’ about the women’s progress.
After exiting the NCAA Div. III, La Sierra is moving toward membership with the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics and currently holds provisional status. NAIA recognizes scholar teams that have achieved a minimum 3.0 grade point average as defined by the institution. The team GPA must include all varsity athletes certified as eligible. La Sierra will be eligible for the scholar team awards during the 2011-2012 school year, according to NAIA officials.
“Going into the final stretch of the basketball season I’d like to congratulate the La Sierra University women’s basketball team on an improved record and an overall 3.13 team grade point average to date,” said NAIA Senior Vice President Lori Thomas. “The environment at La Sierra supports athletic and academic excellence. I encourage the team to build on this momentum in hopes of being named an NAIA scholar team in the future.”
NAIA regulations require student athletes to complete 36 units by the end of their freshman year. In addition, La Sierra’s athletics department requires student athletes to achieve a 2.0 grade point average. The department helps keep students’ academics in line through the use of grade check forms filled out by players’ professors biweekly. Athletes are also required to attend several hours of study hall a week, whether in or out of playing season. When grades start slipping, athletes are required to double the amount of time spent in study hall. La Sierra’s Learning Support and Testing Center helps the student athletes keep up by providing tutoring and other services.
All players with the men’s and women’s basketball programs kept their academic eligibility status, said Kip Shipley, the program’s associate athletic director. “We’ve had really good retention of our athletes,” Shipley said. “If they want to be eligible to play next season they have to keep up their credits and they have to make up credits they didn’t pass before.”
Golden Eagles player Ramos and her sister, Audrey Ramos, remained with La Sierra’s team this year despite its past challenges. The sisters have played ball together since they were children and came to La Sierra from Etiwanda High School’s successful girls’ basketball program. Both sisters have been working to acquire the necessary academic units to play ball. Laura Ramos, a junior criminal justice major, completed 17 units during the fall quarter and became eligible to play on Dec. 17. Her sister will be eligible to play next season after completing the necessary number of units.
When Laura Ramos discovered earlier in the season that she was lacking the requisite number of units, she was devastated, she said. She was excited about the arrival of a new coach and a new program and didn’t want to be left behind. “I wanted to work really hard” to regain eligibility, said Ramos.
Joe Ramos, Laura and Audrey Ramos’s father, said he “couldn’t be happier” with this year’s team performance. “I’ve been watching them for three years. This year’s improvement is beyond belief compared to what it’s been,” he said. Ramos commended La Sierra University Athletics Director Javier Krumm for his words of encouragement to his daughters, asking them to hang in with the program. “I’m very happy with how he handled things,” the senior Ramos said. “He got a good coach.”
Jones, the team’s top scorer against Arizona Christian plans to remain with the Golden Eagles. “This team has the potential to go very far and I want to be part of that ride,” she said. Jones averages 18 points a game. It’s in her blood--Jones has played basketball since she was four years old and says playing serves as an outlet for the day’s stressors. She arrived at La Sierra from Rancho Cucamonga’s Los Osos High School, following her friend and fellow Golden Eagle, Hawthorne, to La Sierra.
“The key to success is time management and discipline,” said Jones. She maintains a 4.0 GPA and is majoring in psychology and pre-law. She plans to become a corporate attorney, aiming to attend law school at Pepperdine University in Malibu. Jones described Thorson as “an excellent coach,” and also a friend to the team. “He gives 110 percent. He never stops working for us. He emphasizes to strive for perfection even though it’s not attainable, to put our best foot out there, to behave with dignity, respect and class.”
Thorson said he will not recruit players who have less than a 3.2 GPA and is currently considering new players for next year’s season who have GPAs above 4.0. As a coach, Thorson uses basketball to teach invaluable life skills such as punctuality, teamwork and discipline. He holds a broader view of the young players’ academic achievements. “[Grade point average] 3.13 is great but I want better,” said Thorson. “I want every girl to succeed at the highest possible level. I want them to leave here having grown as a person.”
The strategy of team building
It starts with the basics. During the basketball season, which begins in October and extends into February, the team practices five or six days a week, two hours per day plus spends time reviewing videos after each game to pinpoint areas of weak performance. They also review video of their competitors’ games to gain insight into their opponents’ strategies, strengths and weaknesses. “We never go into a game without knowing what the other team is going to do,” Thorson said.
Thorson built up the members’ ball-playing experience by pitting them against much bigger schools including six of the top 15 teams in the nation. He took them on the road with games in Montana, Alabama, Arizona and around California.
The team immediately confronted stiff challenges in their first three games. Thorson flew the Golden Eagles to Montana to compete Oct. 28-30 in the Montana State University Coaches v. Cancer Classic against Montana State University-Northern and Carroll College in Helena, Mont., an NAIA national championship school. La Sierra was soundly beaten in each match, but the team returned to campus wiser and more experienced. Thorson intends to take them back for next year’s tournament and achieve different results.
In addition to instilling in his players the ethos of attaining all-around excellence, the coach is reaching for something even more basic: tall players. The current team’s players are mostly around 5’.5” and 5’.6”, and as a result some women play out of position. Thorson is recruiting for players 5’.10” and taller, he said. He anticipates signing between three and five new players, who range in height from 5’.10” to 6’.1”, during an invitational workout on March 13.
Part of his strategy going forward is to secure additional funding for the team for travel, scholarships and general operating expenses. Initially he is seeking to raise $30,000 to cover uniforms, travel, meals and other expenses to bring the program into self-sufficiency. Toward that end, Thorson is planning a fundraising banquet in April and expects to soon announce a date and place for the event. “You can’t run a collegiate program on the backs of car washes and bake sales,” Thorson said. The banquet will feature a keynote talk by Kevin O’Neill, head coach for the University of Southern California Trojans men’s basketball team. Guests will also have an opportunity to meet the Golden Eagles women’s basketball team and staff.
For Thorson, his drive to build up the La Sierra team stems in part from his Seventh-day Adventist heritage. “I feel very personally connected because it’s an Adventist school,” he said of his work here. Both of his parents are La Sierra alumni, and having grown up in the Adventist education system he feels a responsibility and passion to help it develop solid sports programs.
“We’ve come a long way,” Thorson said. “Everything we do is all about making us better.”
PR Contact: Larry Becker
Executive Director of University Relations
La Sierra University