For thousands of students, attending Santa Clara University is a chance to prepare for their future in a heavenly setting.
But the scene has been a bit dark and gloomy for the women’s basketball program in many respects over the past decade, since the Broncos last made a postseason tournament appearance. During that swirl of struggle, there were three seasons of at least 20 losses and just one finish above the .500 mark. Beautiful sunsets aside, the hoops atmosphere simply had a dull, numbing feel.
Under second-year coach JR Payne, however, Santa Clara has turned around a going-nowhere mindset and will break a 10-year stretch of missing the postseason this March after compiling a 23-8 record. That’s 12 victories better than her first year with the Broncos, and it fulfills Payne’s vision of building a team that is restless for achievement.
“The biggest thing really is dealing with the old culture; it wasn’t bad, but it was OK with mediocrity and low expectations,” said Payne, who ran the successful women’s program at Southern Utah for five seasons before coming to Santa Clara. “Teams would lose in the first or second round of the (West Coast Conference) tournament and ask, ‘Hey, where are we going for Spring Break?’ Kids came here and loved it, but they had other priorities. We wanted to bring in kids who could do well academically, but who wanted to be in the gym. They’ve helped us turn the culture.”
It’s not like the Broncos flipped the script this season with a seasoned group of veterans. Injuries have slowly whittled down the number of players who can even put on the uniform, and there have been some consistency questions as the weeks go by.
Safe to say, Santa Clara’s roster will want to sleep in a bit when the games finally come to an end, but no one’s complaining that the season is lasting a bit longer this time around.
“The biggest thing is how everyone has bought into how we want to play. We don’t always shoot it well, and other teams are bigger than us, but we try to be the toughest team on the floor every night,” Payne said. “We’re down to eight players, and one of them is a walk-on – that’s been the situation for much of the season, and the players have shown up with a backs-against-the-wall mentality. Way back at the start of the year, they said finishing top three in the conference was their goal, and I thought, ‘You all are out of your minds. Don’t you see how young we are?’ But the kids were willing to fight for it.”
The Broncos fulfilled their prediction, tying for third at 13-5 in the WCC. The 2015-16 campaign got off to a gnarly start as Santa Clara lost at Washington by 45 points and, two days later, fell by 35 points at USC. But on Nov. 23, Payne’s crew went into Stanford and beat the top-10 Cardinal, 61-58, for the first Santa Clara win at Palo Alto since 1984.
Juniors Lori Parkinson (who followed Payne from Southern Utah) and Marie Bertholdt have kept the Broncos relevant all year, both earning first-team all-WCC honors and averaging about 13 points and seven rebounds per game. Santa Clara has been able to keep posting victories despite a few obvious hiccups in the stats, such as turnovers and 3-point shooting.
“I’m more than familiar with some of those numbers … we knew it would be a tough start, and it showed in the scorebook. Those two juniors, however, are good leaders and the hardest working players in practice, both very vocal,” Payne added. “Parkinson was strictly a post player at first; she took last year off with the redshirt and expanded her game, and now she plays on the perimeter.
“Rebounding has kept us in games; we’ll get offensive boards because we miss a lot of shots, but the kids fly to the glass hard. Defensively, we’re pretty good, led the nation for half a year in steals, and our defense has been something that’s created offense for us.”
So even as the Broncos work through a little late frustration – Payne said her team is a little chapped that San Francisco, which lost to the Broncos twice this year, managed to beat BYU for the WCC tourney title – spirits are high about playing in the postseason.
“We’re excited about the WNIT and look forward to seeing who we’ll play,” Payne said.