The Citrus Women's Basketball team came at the 2017-2018 season with a purpose. After having finished last year well under the .500 mark at (7-19, 3-7), and losing every rostered player besides one (and a really good one mind you, in Marisol Chavez-Delgado), the Owls embarked on a journey that would pit them against some of the best teams in the region.
Second year Head Coach Linnae Barber Matthews was the key ingredient in setting the focus in on the right areas for the Owls. Coach Barber Matthews set the bar high for Citrus early in the year, arguably changing the culture of the program single handedly and literally building a team from the ground up. When asked about the vision that forms the foundation for the Citrus team, Coach Barber Matthews had this to say, "My philosophy with basketball has always been that it's more than basketball, and you're more than an athlete. I will always stick by that. I think basketball is an amazing sport, but who are you outside of basketball? What's your purpose in life? Who do you want to become? What's your vision? Even if you don't know yet, it's important to figure out who you are as a person, and then basketball can help you get there." The Citrus players that bought into that philosophy reaped the rewards of that point of view and developed a unique set of skills to carry them into next season with purpose.
Citrus essentially hit the ground running in November when they went straight into tournament mode, playing in 4 tournaments in just two months and amassing a record of 9-7 through December. The Owl's first home game of the season didn't even take place until January, and it must have felt like a perpetual road trip up to that point. Amassing a winning record in a preseason without a home game was not only an impressive feat, but for a team with only one Sophomore it was the type of confidence builder that a young team needs.
The Owls lineup, as stated above, included mostly Freshmen, but not all of the Freshmen were straight out of high school. Take Lydia Sanchez for example, Sanchez brought a great deal of maturity and leadership to the Owls' roster after having served in the United States Marine Corps and finishing her service having been promoted to Sergeant.
Assistant Coach Greg Dinneen, who has seen his fair share of college basketball over the years with over 23 years of collegiate coaching experience at all levels, sees the Owls as a uniquely talented group. There are a couple of individuals that stood out to Coach Dinneen.
Regarding the lone Sophomore, Marisol Chavez-Delgado: "I've had the pleasure of coaching her for three years. Unfortunately last year she got hurt in the 3rd game of the season and tore the labrum in her shoulder. She had surgery in January of 2017 and wasn't really able to shoot a basketball until the end of June, and she really couldn't do any contact until July. For her to not shoot a basketball for almost five months and then come back this season and be a top ten shooter in the state for percentage, and lead the Western State Conference going into the playoffs, is amazing and a testament to her work ethic. In my 23 years coaching college basketball… I've coached over 300 student athletes in women's basketball, I would have to say that Marisol's work ethic and coachability have got to be in the top 5 of those 300 players."
Coach Dinneen on Freshman guard Jezteni Espinoza, who has been ranked as high as 2nd in the state in three point shooting: "When you consider that she's a freshman and there's 91 teams in the state. And each team has an average of 10 players, for her to be the 2nd best three point shooter out of over 900 college players in the state is really amazing and a tribute to her work ethic."
A Greater Purpose
Make no mistake, although the Owls had a couple of special players on the roster this year, for Coach Barber Matthews and her staff, teamwork and team first attitude are what it's all about. "I think that individually, bringing out the best in them off the court. I think one of the biggest hurdles for coaches is getting the kids to mentally check into themselves. Not the team, you've got to check into yourself, then you get to check into the team. If you don't have a sense of self, you're not bringing anything for the team." said Coach Barber Matthews.
The Owls end their season right at .500, with an overall record of 14-14, a marked improvement over last season, and an excellent place to begin building for next year. Look for Coach Matthews and her staff to put in the time in the off season recruiting a new class of freshman who can step up and compete at the level Citrus is becoming accustomed to from the Women's Basketball Team.