Women's basketball almunae gathered to reminisce in the East Bay weight room with Pioneer Pete. (Photo: Paul Dewhurst)
The slogan for Cal State East Bay's upcoming Homecoming 2014 is "Rise of the Red and Black," a reflection of the university's striving for new levels of excellence athletics.
It is fitting, then, that Pioneer Gym would play host to a homecoming of women's basketball alumnae on the same weekend that the 2013-14 CSUEB squad ascended to first place in the California Collegiate Athletic Association for the first time as members of the conference.
The Pioneers hosted the Women's Basketball Alumnae Reunion during and after CSUEB's game against Humboldt State on Saturday, Jan. 4. At halftime, the CSUEB Athletics Department held a ceremony to honor the members of the record-setting 2002-03 and 2003-04 teams.
Exactly 11 years to the day after a last-second inbounds play under the basket gave CSUEB a 46-44 win over Bowdoin College (the No. 2 ranked team in the nation at the time), more than 20 members of the '02-03 and '03-04 squads gathered on the same court to celebrate accomplishments that haven't been matched by a Pioneer team since.
Leah Thornton led all scorers with 16 points in that game against Bowdoin. It was one of many outstanding performances for the three-time all-conference and two-time Academic All-America honoree.
"It was exciting to see my old teammates and coaches and (to) reminisce about our teams and the funny things that happened," said Thornton, who's the second-highest scorer in Pioneer women's basketball history and still holds the school record for free throws made. "What a treat it was to get a glimpse into the different paths that my teammates have taken since leaving CSUEB."
Following CSUEB's 83-58 win over HSU, the alumnae in attendance joined the current squad up in the Pioneer weight room to eat, take photographs and swap stories from their time on the Hayward Campus.
Under then-head coach Sara Lillevand Judd, the 2002-03 squad that represented a university -- then known as Cal State Hayward -- amassed the most victories in the history of the program. It completed its season with a 21-8 record and featured the third-best defense in the nation, allowing 52.2 points per game. The 21 victories led the Pioneers to the NAIA National Championship Tournament.
The 2003-04 team did a remarkable job living being able to play up the standards that had been established by the '02-03 squad. With most of its top players returning, that squad went 21-6, establishing new school records for winning percentage (.778) and free throw shooting (71.5 percent). That team's members included an All-American (Thornton), four all-conference selections and three Academic All-Americans.
One of those was Beth Murdock, a four-year starter who still ranks second in school history in steals, third in three-point baskets, fourth in assists, and first in assist-turnover ratio.
"Those teams were special because we had skilled players, and more importantly, we played hard for each other and believed in the system," Murdock said. "Being a student-athlete and playing for those teams was invaluable. It taught me to strive to be a little better every day. I learned how to work well with a variety of people and picked up time management and multitasking skills that continue to serve me well."
A great deal has changed in the past decade, both with the student-athletes and the university itself. Thornton is now Leah Pero, a physical education teacher and a 2010 inductee into the Cal State East Bay Athletics Hall of Fame. On Saturday at halftime, the woman who once dominated Pioneer Gym could only smile proudly as her two young sons knocked down shot after shot on the very same court.
As the university has grown, the Pioneers made a monumental shift from NAIA to NCAA Division II. Since then, the CSUEB Athletics Department has quadrupled in size, moving from a non-scholarship program to one that exceeds the minimum of $250,000 in athletic financial aid.
One constant through all this change has been Judd. As a coach, she holds school records for victories (172) and winning percentage (.585). As an administrator, she helped guide CSUEB through the complex process of coming into compliance with NCAA Division II rules and regulations. In 2013, she was named Division II Administrator of the Year by the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletics Administrators (NACWA). Now, after 16 years as a Pioneer, Judd is the university's director of athletics.
"Playing for Sara was an absolute pleasure," Pero said. "Her dedication to us as players, but more importantly as people, was amazing. Academics was a top priority for the program — if we didn't get it done in the classroom, we didn't touch a basketball."
"We knew Sara would have our backs, make good decisions, and put us in the best possible position to be successful," Murdock added.
Under current head coach Suzy Barcomb, the Pioneers have earned back-to-back trips to the CCAA postseason tournament. Now the veteran squad is trying to claim the school's first CCAA championship. But as Cal State East Bay strives towards a bright future, it's important to continue to recognize the past.
"Those teams were special because of their commitment to defense, rebounding and each other," said Judd. "It was exciting to see many of those women with their families and young kids, especially since my kids were that same age when I coached those teams.
"Witnessing their joy at reconnecting with each other was particularly satisfying. That shared experience of being on a team is an incredible bond. We are all so busy in our lives, it's important for us to give the alumni an opportunity to come back and remember that special time and place."
To view photos from the alumnae reunion event, visit the Pioneer Athletics Facebook page.