Both UC Santa Cruz NCAA basketball teams started their seasons on Nov. 7 with scrimmages against out-of-division opponents. The men’s team lost to Westmont College, which is part of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), while the women’s team was also defeated in its second scrimmage of the season against Division II Cal State Monterey Bay.
Men’s head coach Ron Dubois said it’s a challenge to play a nationally-ranked team like Westmont College, which advanced to the NAIA championship game last year. After the 96-70 loss, senior captain Matthew Ponce emphasized the team needs to strengthen its defense going into the regular season.
“We have a solid group of talent that can go out and beat anyone,” said fellow senior captain and brother Jared Ponce. “The potential is there for something special, but we have to go prove ourselves night in and night out.”
While the men’s team looks to improve on last year’s 17-8 season with a strong returning cohort of players, the women’s team needs to establish a new core with incoming players.
“Playing Monterey Bay was kind of disappointing because it was a little more rocky than previous years,” said senior captain Ashley Holmes. “But I was impressed with how our returners came together and played.”
Last season the Slugs came out on top against Monterey in their first scrimmage and had success in previous seasons. The team graduated six of its strongest contributors — Sara Crane, Sarah Fitzgerald, Geena Giovannetti, Erin Joo, Sarah Mackey and Leah Parrish.
“The adjustment period is still going on because the seniors last year were the bread and butter, they set the standard high and we don’t want their legacy down,” Holmes said. “We’ve gotten better every year and set the bar high.”
While the women’s side is in a rebuild, the men are focused on competing every game and using their schedule, heavy with home games, as an advantage. The men play Claremont McKenna College at Kaiser Permanente Arena downtown on Nov. 15, while the women head down to Redlands to play on Nov. 14 and Occidental College in Los Angeles the following day.
The women’s team will head to the Great South Athletic Conference (GSAC) at the end of its season, giving them the opportunity for an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Holmes said it’s essential for the team to take advantage of the conference switch to qualify for the tournament. GSAC is an all-women’s conference, leaving the men’s team to compete for an at-large bid — a sort of wild card — which demands a strong record to be a contender.
“We know we can prepare each game and plan to play our best basketball in Salem for the GSAC,” said women’s head coach Todd Kent. “So this season has a different feel, and we can play to the conference and it gives us a big advantage.”
Despite differing schedules and goals, it comes down to the athletes’ readiness to compete, which both Ponce and Holmes are confident about. With only four new roster additions and 15 returners, men’s head coach Ron DuBois anticipates a competitive season from his players.
“This is the most experienced group we have had and the guys are really hungry and excited, so we’re looking forward to it,” DuBois said. “Our team has a defensive identity.”
DuBois attributes part of this identity to Jared and Matthew Ponce, who “play with a chip on their shoulder.”
“That attitude really carries over to the whole team,” DuBois said. “We play with an edge about us and it is demonstrated by those two guys and starts with them.”