By Zach Slagle
Both of Western’s basketball teams are preparing for back-to-back trips to the NCAA Division II playoffs coming off of strong 2016-17 seasons. The men’s team is chasing its second consecutive Great Northwest Athletic Conference championship, while the women’s team is going for its 17th NCAA playoff appearance under head coach Carmen Dolfo.
The men’s basketball team’s 2016-17 season ended with a 96-83 loss in the quarterfinal round of the NCAA Division II West Regional against Chico State University. Seven players are returning from last year’s 25-6 team, motivated for a deeper playoff push.
Typically, teams avoid setting high expectations because it attracts pressure, but senior DeAndre Dickson said this year’s team is on a mission.
“That’s all we talked about all summer long. Everyone is hungry, and we just want to win [and] get a national championship honestly,” Dickson said.
Reigning GNAC Coach of the Year Tony Dominguez is entering his 23rd season at Western and his sixth as the men’s head coach. With the level of experience Dominguez has developed, he said he understands the bigger picture can’t be achieved overnight.
“You have to set goals,” Dominguez said. “You can’t always talk about the big prize, sometimes you have to talk about how to get there.”
Some returning players have caught the attention of others during the team’s offseason workouts. Guards such as senior Blake Fernandez and junior Tyler Payne’s role will increase during Trey Drechsel’s absence due to injury.
“Blake Fernandez is a player that comes to mind,” Dickson said. “He’s a really talented player, good at moving the ball, he’s very crafty. I expect a lot out him this year.”
Dominguez said this year’s team has a height advantage over his previous rosters. Half of the roster is at least 6-foot-6 or taller with versatility to guard multiple positions. Dickson, junior Logan Schilder, sophomores Daulton Hommes and Trevor Jasinsky are all 6-foot-7 or taller.
“Logan Schilder will be better than he was last year, but I thought he affected games greatly,” Dominguez said. “The year before we didn’t have him, and we had an interesting year because of a lack of presence inside. Now we have that with him and DeAndre.”
The Vikings season begins Nov. 10 at Sam Carver Gymnasium against Notre Dame De Namur.
The women’s basketball team is also looking to get back to the NCAA II West Regional playoffs after last year’s 80-69 loss to No. 2 seeded Cal Baptist in the semifinal round.
Dolfo is entering her 27th season as head coach at Western. Dolfo has earned more wins than any Western coach in any sport with a total of 561.
Last year’s team featured Taylor Peacocke, who led the conference in scoring with 23 points per game. Tia Briggs and Kiana Gandy averaged 25 more points between them. Losing nearly 60 points in all, Dolfo acknowledged the youth of her roster, but has asked for every one of her players to step up and fill in for those graduates.
“Hannah Stipanovich is a senior and will be one of the players we expect to take a step up,” Dolfo said in an email. “Overall, we are very young, so everyone will need to dig deep and take their game to the next level.”
Stipanovich was the fourth-leading scorer from last year’s team and doesn’t feel pressured to carry the offensive load.
“I’m not worried about having to carry the team,” Stipanovich said. “I think it’s going to be an even-scoring year. On any given day someone can score double digits. Our point guard Lexie [Bland] was a freshman last year and captain this year. She’s looking very promising. Transfers like Dani [Iwami] and Anna [Schweke] will provide scoring for us.”
Last year, the home court for both of Western’s basketball teams was Whatcom Pavilion, but this year it’s Carver Gym.
“The last few years was extremely tough being away from campus, basically playing road games for our home games.” Dolfo said. “Being back on campus, with our facility, weight room, team room and courts is a tremendous lift for all of our student-athletes.”
The team’s new home court provides more than a facility, it provides confidence and comfort.
“We don’t want to take no L’s in here,” Dickson said. “Now we have something that’s ours. The fans are going to be here. Games are going to be livelier.”
Dominguez said he understands the responsibility of protecting home court this year.
“Last year we were all on the road, which is very dangerous. We were able to perform in that,” Dominguez said. “This year it’s at home, which can be dangerous due to pressure of winning at home. We don’t want to split at home.”
The men’s basketball team will open its season at Carver Gym on Nov. 10 against Notre Dame De Namur. The women’s team will open its season on the road on Nov. 10 against Fresno Pacific University in Azusa, California.