California Baptist unbeaten, but can’t go dancing

LOS ANGELES — California Baptist has the longest current winning streak in Division I women’s basketball and is only the fifth school since 2016 to go unbeaten through its first 20 games. But you won’t be seeing the Lancers when the NCAA Tournament bracket is released March 15.

That’s because the private Christian school in Riverside, California, is in its third season of a four-year transition phase to full Division I membership status. California Baptist made the jump from Division II in July 2018 but is not eligible to participate in an NCAA tournament in any sport until the 2022-23 season.

“I’m not gonna lie, it feels like a bit of a letdown,” senior guard Georgia Dale said. “Everyone’s big thing is going to the big dance and seeing how far they get in March. And it feels like a bit of a punch in the face knowing that we can only go so far.”

The Western Athletic Conference regular-season champions won’t see their season end, though, after next week’s conference tournament in Las Vegas. Women’s NIT organizers are planning to invite the Lancers to be part of their 32-team field.

The Lancers go into Friday’s game at Seattle with a 23-game winning streak dating back to last season. Victories over the Redhawks on Friday and Saturday would make them the 24th team since 1982 to go through the regular season undefeated and the first since both Mississippi State and UConn did it in 2017-18.

If California Baptist can make it undefeated through next week, it would join UConn, Tennessee, Baylor and Notre Dame as programs to go unbeaten in the regular season and win the conference tournament. The Huskies were the last to do it in 2018.

Unfortunately, the Lancers would also become the first team since Oral Roberts in 1983 to go unbeaten and not receive an NCAA bid.

Coach Jarrod Olson said there hasn’t been much discussion about being undefeated at this point in the season or the long winning streak.

“We haven’t really talked about finishing the conference undefeated. We’re just focused on trying to win it,” he said. “You kind of find yourself in different situations at the end of the year, and this just happens to be one of them for us.”

Olson is in his ninth season at the university. He has guided the program from the National Christian College Athletic Association to an appearance in the Division II final in 2015 and now success in Division I. The Lancers were second in the WAC in their first Division I season (2018-19) before going 16-15 last season due to injuries.

On the court, the Lancers are led by guard Ane Olaeta, who was the WAC’s preseason player of the year. The senior is averaging 8.3 assists per game, which would lead the nation if the school was included in the NCAA statistics. Redshirt sophomore Caitlyn Harper is the team’s leading scorer at 13.7 points per game and senior forward Britney Thomas is averaging 13.6 points along with 8.2 rebounds.

While the Lancers’ 79 points per game would make them one of the top scoring teams in the nation, Olson has been extremely happy with the improvements on defense this season. They are holding teams to 32.6% shooting from the field, which would be second in the nation behind Baylor.

“That has taken us to the place where we are right now,” Olaeta said.

Olaeta and Dale are two of seven international players on the roster. Dale is one of four Australians and Oleata is from Spain. Other players are from France and Canada. There are also three players from Southern California.

Even though there is the immediate goal of an undefeated season, Dale and Olaeta have realized the past couple seasons have been about building the program for future success.

“Well, as coach says, it’s not just like the moment right now. The goal is just bigger for the future,” Olaeta said.

With the early success, Olson is hoping his program can eventually be considered in the conversation with South Dakota State and Florida Gulf Coast as former Division II programs that have had consistent success as mid-majors in Division I.

“We’ve got a long ways to go to get on their level, but I certainly think this year is a step in that direction,” he said. “I mean, those are gigantic shoes to try to fill. But, you know, it’s a good place to start for us. And hopefully we can make it up someday.”

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