Written by Sarah Bergstrom, USC blog contributor
Elite athletes often talk about the concept of the peak, the process of preparing, training and planning so that their ultimate athletic potential is expressed at the perfect moment in their season. As the USC Women's basketball team passes the halfway point in the regular season ranked second in the conference, they are at the right place at the right time to peak when it matters most.
The peaking process starts with laying a foundation. Amidst much offseason change, the foundation for this team was found in the leadership of its upperclassmen, namely Cassie Harberts. The senior forward entered the season ranked No. 16 on USC's all-time scoring list after leading the Trojans in scoring, rebounding and blocks as a junior. She was the expected to anchor this team after the departure of lone senior Christina Marinacci last year. After finishing 11-20 last season, the Trojans knew they had a long way to go in rebuilding, but Harberts says she was never worried about it.
"To us, it's not really a surprise how much we have accomplished, but to the outside I can see how it might look a little surprising," Harberts says with a laugh. "I'm just so proud of the girls and how we've rebounded from last year. We've really come together and all the pieces are starting to fall in the right place."
With a solid foundation in place, summer workouts signaled the start of a building period. In a physical sense this period means strengthening; high volume and high intensity work to prepare the body for challenges it will face later in the season. But there's a mental aspect to this building period as well, the strengthening not just of muscles but of chemistry as well.
"The difference is that we all have another year under our belt," the senior captain explains. "It's pretty much the same team back from last year and I think chemistry wise we finally found what works for us. We know what to expect. For the most part everyone's played in the Pac-12, and now we're a year older. It shows."
But the chemistry that has pushed the Women of Troy to be ranked second in the Pac-12 at the midpoint of the season didn't develop overnight. In the preseason, the Trojans went 8-5, losing to tough opponents like Iowa and Oklahoma State as they put their offseason lessons and adjustments into play for the first time. According to Coach Cooper, surviving the bumps in the road in the preseason is exactly what her team needed to prepare for conference and sure enough, as USC began Pac-12 play, the product on the court was far improved.
It's been a season of individual improvement as well, with players stepping up to the plate and stepping into their own. This is the case for two Trojans in particular, Alexyz Vaioletama and Ariya Crook, who have emerged to contribute to the team in an even greater way this season. Vaioletama, the once silent leader, has found her spark and leads the team in rebounding averaging 7.3 per game. Crook is hitting her stride as well, leading the team in scoring averaging 16.2 points per game. The junior guard was the second leading scorer last season, but this year she's elevated her game even further.
"Having more faith in my teammates is key," says Crook. "When I first got here I watched older girls like Ashley Corral and Briana Gilbreath, now I'm in their shoes. I see that I get to play a big role on this team and I'm just trying to get my teammates involved so that we can all be together, and win together."
Playing together has been the focus of new head coach Cynthia Cooper-Dyke who, in taking the reins of her alma mater, has brought something new to the dynamic of her team. Cooper returned to USC with passion, passion for the game that changed her life forever, and passion for a group of collegiate athletes who she believes have what it takes to go even further this season. Everything Cooper does, from the intensity she brings in practice to the close bonds she's formed with her team, comes from her love of this team.
"I think they are finally starting to enjoy themselves and it's showing on the court," says Cooper. "They've bought in to what we want to accomplish. What I've brought comes from who I am. I have passion for this university, passion for this program and I love these girls. I work hard for them and in turn they work hard for us. That's how it works."
And it has been working. The Trojans are 14-7 overall with a 7-2 record in the Pac-12 ranked second behind Stanford. Both Harberts and Crook broke into the top 10 of two USC all-time lists against Oregon State and, the Women of Troy became the first team to score 100 points at the Galen Center against Oregon. Last weekend, the unranked Trojans upset No. 16 Cal in Berkeley thanks to a Harberts double-double (15 points and 10 rebounds) and an astounding 34 points from Crook, the most by a Trojan since 2002.
"We've been preaching all year a different mentality," explains Harberts. "Our goal has been to be more aggressive, not settling for jump shots, and really using our defensive stops to fuel our offense especially in the quick transition. Last year, we could win the first half but never really found a way to finish in the second. I think we've learned this year how to get that done and close out games properly."
In addition, Crook credits the team's progress on the court this season to development of their inside-out game, seeing improvement in the way the offense sets up plays, feeds the ball through Harberts and finds passing lanes. She says it's the fact that they are playing true team ball that's made the biggest difference.
"In the beginning we were trying to find ourselves as individuals and as a team. Now we are actually putting it together and moving forward each week. We keep striding up," says Crook. "We don't need to look back, just need to look forward and keep doing what we've been doing all along."
This week USC hosts Washington State and Washington before meeting rival UCLA once again next week at home. With just over a month to play before the regular season comes to a close the Trojans' work is far from finished, but Coach Cooper believes her team will peak at just the right time.
"This is exactly where we want to be at this point in our season," said Cooper. "We don't look too far ahead. We literally take it one game at a time, one week at a time. From here we just need to learn to take it up a notch. From here on out teams will be ready for us and we have to be ready to meet that challenge."