Women's basketball team sets sights high

The Gator women's basketball team has shaped up to be an underdog competitor this year -- after being ranked toward the bottom of their conference at the start of the season, they are now setting their sights on qualifying for the playoffs.

The Gators' current record halfway through the season is 5 – 5 in conference play, which puts them in sixth place out of 12 teams in the California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA). With five weeks left in the season, they are now focused on narrowing the gap and earning a playoff berth.

A photo of Gator women's basketball player Farrah Shokoor dribbling the basketball.

Sophomore forward Farrah Shokoor is sixth in the nation in steals.

"I think the biggest surprise in the conference this year is us. We were ranked second to last at the beginning of the year, and now we're hanging in there," said head coach Joaquin Wallace.

"Our conference is one of the most competitive around," he added. "Chico State is the best team in the conference, and they're number nine in the country. But I really think we're the biggest surprise."

After two games on the road last week, the Gators return this week to their home court, The Swamp, for games against conference rivals University of California, San Diego on Friday, Jan. 25 and Cal State San Bernardino on Saturday, Jan. 26.

Last year, the team placed tenth in the CCAA. This year, ten players are transfers or freshmen, while only six are returning from the 2011-12 season. The Gators have proven themselves with teamwork and leadership from players like sophomore forward Farrah Shokoor, who is sixth in the nation in steals, and junior guard Angela Van Sickel, a team captain.

To compete against veteran teams, the Gators have focused their practices on running drills to build experience with a variety of situations they'll encounter on the court, a strategy that has paid off.

A photo of Gator women's basketball players Angela Van Sickel and Farrah Shokoor in a game this year.

Angela Van Sickel (left) and Farrah Shokoor.

"We took a much more offensive approach this year," said Wallace. "We've put a lot of emphasis on strengthening the offensive side of the game. It's not really scripted; it takes a lot of experience and time in practice to know what we need to do to score when we've got the ball."

The intensity of practices and the challenges of forming new team chemistry have resulted in a tight-knit group of players who know how to rely on one another to play well.

"There's more determination this year than in years past," said team captain Van Sickel. "Our team gets along really well. The freshmen have really come along."

"The biggest challenge now is to keep our pace up," said sophomore Shokoor. "The teams we've already beat, we need to continue to beat them. It can get tough toward the end of the season with traveling and class schedules."

Wallace says the Gators are up to the task, and that their schedule this year allows the team to build experience on the road that will help them when they return to The Swamp with homecourt advantage. For the rest of the season, focus and discipline are the name of the game, he said.

"The goal is to be in a position to make a run for the conference championship. We've got what it takes, it's just a matter of them wanting it and putting it all on the court."

Click to view the 2012-13 women's basketball schedule.

-- Philip Riley