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Don’t call it a turnaround

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Toni Thompson’s steady presence on the floor and in the scoring column has kept Occidental rolling along. 
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com
 

By Brian Lester
D3sports.com

Turnaround doesn’t seem to be the right word to describe Occidental’s women’s basketball season.

In fact, head coach Anahit Aladzhanyan has a different way of viewing the climb from from 11 wins to 22 while winning a SCIAC championship and punching a ticket to the NCAA Division III tournament.

“I hate the concept of turnaround,” Aladzhanyan said with a laugh. “I feel it’s more of a progression of putting work in and getting better, and I think we’ve finally had a season where things have progressed in a more linear fashion than a big turnaround. It’s exciting and I’m proud of the team.”

Whatever one wants to call what the Tigers’ season has been up to this point, the one sure thing is that it isn’t over. Occidental (22-5) plays at AWC champion Hardin- Simmons (24-3) Friday in the opening round of the tourney. The Cowgirls are 10th in the D3hoops.com Top 25 poll.

“It’s been a roller coaster of emotions, and an accelerated timeline of personal growth to get to this point,” senior guard Toni Thompson said. “But all that remains now is excitement.”

Thompson has helped generate that excitement and a big reason why the Tigers will play in March, leading the team in scoring (24.8 points per game) and rebounding (11.6).

She missed last season because of a torn patellar tendon, an injury she believes she first suffered at the end of the previous season. Thompson competed in track and field that spring, and that’s when things started not feeling right.

“I started to experience a bit more pain, and a lot of swelling in my knee,” Thompson said. “During the summer I had to shut it down because even rehab exercises were difficult. Running was difficult and I couldn’t jump at all. Simply going up and down stairs caused immense pain.”

It was also difficult for her to watch last season play out and not be able to contribute. But there were lessons learned from that experience.

“It was a great learning experience,” Thompson said. “I got to view and learn the game from a different perspective and understand the flow of the game better in general. I had to adapt and find other ways to be a leader and show my support for my teammates since I typically showcase my leadership through my actions and play style on the court.”

She’s back to doing it this year. Thompson scored 29 points and pulled down 10 rebounds in the opener against Life Pacific and hasn’t looked back.

How great has it been for Aladzhanyan to have the former league newcomer of the year back on the court?

Shooting over Ainsley Shelsta is … a tall order.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photgraphy.com
 

“It’s been awesome,” Aladzhanyan said. “It’s huge having a go-to scorer on the floor. She’s incredible. She led the conference in points and rebounds. She brings a sense of dominance and calm.”

Thompson was the conference tournament’s MVP, helping the Tigers claim the SCIAC crown with a 66-58 win over Cal Lutheran.

But this is an Occidental team that is hardly a one-person show. Ainsley Shelsta, a legit 6-5 force in the paint, has also risen to the occasion. The sophomore is averaging 13.7 points and 10.0 rebounds while blocking 36 shots.

“This season I feel I’ve made a larger impact on the court. My coaches and teammates have really believed in me and trusted me with the ball in running certain plays to be able to score,” Shelsta said. “What’s great about our team is that we are all so talented. So knowing I have the full support of my team behind me to lift me up and encourage me is what has allowed me to grow as a player.”

Shelsta has had an interesting journey. She’s originally from South Dakota but caught the eye of Occidental during an AAU tournament. Making the move to Los Angeles is quite the lifestyle adjustment.

“California is just so different, and being away from my family was a hard adjustment,” Shelsta said. “The thing that has made the adjustment the easiest is being part of a team. From the first week of my freshman year through now, the team has welcomed me in and I have found a second family and a home away from home.”

On the court, with her size, it’s a benefit in a lot of ways.

“I am the tallest person in the SCIAC, and have yet to play someone taller than me in college, so that really helps in all aspects of basketball,” Shelsta said. “I am able to score on and over almost anyone, and it really helps on defense trying to grab rebounds.”

Aladzhanyan points out Thompson and Shelsta make a formidable one-two punch, but the others on this team are important as well.

She points to someone like Gabriela Etopio, who averages only 3.7 points but has come up with 36 steals and is a thorn in the side of any offense.

“She is so disruptive defensively and what she does on the floor doesn’t always show up on a traditional stat sheet,” Aladzhanyan said. “She’ll have games with five to 10 deflections and just gets in the head of the ball handler.”

There is Paige Yasukochi, who is averaging 8.4 points per game and has dished out 58 assists. Dara Tokeshi is putting up 8.0 points per contest and has handed out 40 assists. Dominique Cabading leads the team in assists with 87 and is averaging 7.0 points.

“Every player really stars in their role and is doing what they do best for the team to be successful,” Aladzhanyan said.

Back when practice first started, Aladzhanyan could see just how bad her team wanted to make this year one to remember.

The team held a day of activities, team-bonding stuff, and it was then that Aladzhanyan said the team set its goals.

“Our team was very clear on what it wanted to accomplish,” Aladzhanyan said. “They wanted to make the conference tournament and have a chance to advance to the NCAA tournament. They decided that day they were going to get it done.”

Thompson said the willingness to work as a unit made all the difference.

“It was us wanting and striving to be great in practices and games, and us coming together and playing for each other and a common goal,” Thompson said.

Aladzhanyan loves how her team has pushed forward no matter how things go.

“They’ve been mentally and physically tough, and resilient,” Aladzhanyan said. “Any setbacks we’ve had, they haven’t derailed us. If we lost a game, it wasn’t the end of the world. It was like ‘okay, let’s get back to doing what we need to do to have the outcome we want.’”

The outcome they want now is a 2-0 weekend in Texas.

“We have to believe in ourselves and play for each other,” Thompson said. “We have to stay in the moment and know that it’s not over until it’s over.”

Shelsta agrees.

“Through this season, we have done a great job of finding our flow together,” Shelsta said. “We all have our roles, and we all execute and play to our strengths very well. If we can all stay focused in the moment and on playing together, great things will happen.”



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