There was no Epiphany. The realization that this group of women played basketball at a level unseen at a school forever in the shadow of USC and UCLA slowly crept in, one victory after another.
By the time Cal State Dominguez Hills was 19-0, it was abundantly clear that unprecedented accomplishments were on the horizon, that the potential for something unimaginable in any other year was within its grasp.
The Toros (31-2) will travel to Missouri to prepare for a clash with Catawba (28-5) — a college in Salisbury, N.C. — starting Monday in the NCAA Division II Elite Eight. They have won the West Region Championship for the first time hosting the tournament. He also won the California Collegiate Athletic Association. Topic.
And they climbed to No. 4 in the national rankings, a rare breeze for a program that had been ranked first only once, at No. 18 in 1984–85.
“For this to be special, I wasn’t sure for a while,” Dominguez Hills coach John Bonner said. “In November, even through December, wrapping up our preseason opponents, it started to become clear that this was a different team, the way we were winning and our chemistry.
“We assumed something good was going to happen this year. But we couldn’t have predicted it would be this good.”
On-court excellence was always secondary to the family atmosphere and one that Bonner has fostered since taking over the reins ahead of the 2016-17 season. His first team was 7-20, and the Toros weren’t on the sunny side of .500 until going 13-12 last season.
“What people don’t see all the time is we’re so much more than just athletes,” said Bonner, who has a master’s degree in counseling and family therapy. “The team is connected, they spend a lot of time together. We talk about social justice issues, women’s issues. We understand how intelligent and cerebral they are and how much change they want to make when basketball is over.
“Our mantra is to disrupt, defend and rebound. We’ll use different presses depending on our opponent. We try to take guys out of their flow and play them differently.
John Bonner, Cal State Dominguez Hills coach
Senior leadership is provided by guard Donnell Laird, a CCAA player of the year who began his career at Wichita State and headed to a community college in New Mexico before transferring to Dominguez Hills prior to his junior year.
Most of his Toros teammates are sophomores and freshmen, which bodes well for maintaining his success this season.
“It’s a role that I inherited, I didn’t really seek it,” said Laird, who earned the women’s basketball coach Ascendant. First Team All-American honors. “We have a pretty young group and it turns out they want to hear from me. I just take it as a challenge. I’m the eldest of my siblings, so I’m used to people listening to me.” Respected. The team is like a family. I am like an elder sister to everyone in a way.
During the preseason, Bonner handed out dog tags to each player and asked them to present a teammate they consider inspirational. Lair ended up with a big handful.
“She’s a little quiet and her teammates wanted her to speak up,” Bonner said. “She’s super humble. When we pick teams for intrasquad scrimmages, she picks teammates who don’t get a lot of minutes. She’s a team-first guy.
Laird, who attended Fairfax High, averaged 13.9 points, leading a balanced offense that got 13 points a game ahead of Lakewood High’s Asia Jordan and Long Beach Poly’s freshman Nala Williams. Jordan was the MVP of the West Region.
“Our mantra is disrupt, defend and rebound,” Bonner said. “We’ll use different types of presses depending on our opponent. We try to take guys out of their flow and play them differently.
The Toros have had their way with almost every opponent so far. What do they know about the Catawba? They’re not sure it matters.
“All games are going to come to us with an eye on our identity,” Laird said. “We want to understand what they do, but the main thing is to keep doing what we’ve been doing all season.”