There wasn’t an epiphany. The realization that this group of women played basketball at a level unseen at a school forever in the shadows of USC and UCLA came gradually, one victory after another.
By the time Cal State Dominguez Hills was 19-0, it was abundantly clear 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 to play Catawba (28-5) — a college in Salisbury, N.C. — in the NCAA Division II Elite Eight beginning Monday. They’ve already won the West Region championship for the first time while hosting the tournament for the first time. They also won the California Collegiate Athletic Assn. title.
And they ascended to No. 4 in the national rankings, rarefied air for a program that had been ranked only once before at No. 18 in 1984-85.
“To be this 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 this was a different team, the way we were winning and our chemistry.
“We recognized something good is about to happen this year. But we couldn’t predict it’d be this good.”
On-court excellence was always secondary to the family atmosphere and camaraderie Bonner has fostered since taking the reins before the 2016-17 season. His first team was 7-20, and not until going 13-12 last season were the Toros on the sunny side of .500.
“The thing people don’t see all the time, we are much more than just athletes,” said Bonner, who holds 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 issues. We understand how intelligent and cerebral they are and how much they want to make a difference when basketball is over.”
“Our mantra is disrupt, defend and rebound. We will use a variety of presses depending on our opponent. We try to take people out of their flow and make them play a different way.”
— Cal State Dominguez Hills coach John Bonner
Senior leadership is provided by guard Dawnyel Lair, the CCAA player of the year who began her career at Wichita State and left for a community college in New Mexico before transferring to Dominguez Hills before her junior year.
Most of her Toros teammates are sophomores and freshmen, which bodes well for sustaining this season’s success.
“It’s a role I inherited, I didn’t really look for it,” Lair said, who earned Women’s Basketball Coaches Assn. first team All-American honors. “We do 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 oldest of my siblings, so I’m used to people looking up to me. The team is like a family. I’m like a big sister to everybody in a way.”
During the preseason, Bonner handed dog tags to each player and asked them to present one to a teammate they regard as inspirational. Lair ended up with a large handful.
“She is a little quiet and her teammates wanted her so speak up,” Bonner said. “She is super humble. When we pick teams for intrasquad scrimmages, she chooses teammates who don’t get a lot of minutes. She’s a team-first person.”
Lair, who attended Fairfax High, averages 13.9 points, leading a balanced offense that also gets 13 points a game from sophomore forward Asia Jordan of Lakewood High and freshman Nala Williams of Long Beach Poly. Jordan was MVP of the West Regional.
“Our mantra is disrupt, defend and rebound,” Bonner said. “We will use a variety of presses depending on our opponent. We try to take people out of their flow and make them play a different way.”
The Toros have had their way with nearly every opponent so far. What do they know about Catawba? They aren’t sure it matters.
“All the games are going to come down to us keeping eye on our identity,” Lair said. “We want to understand what they do, but the main thing is to continue doing what we’ve been doing all season.”