Sports, Women's Basketball

49ers predicted to finish 7th in coaches’ poll

Two words resonate in the mind of Karina Figueroa this season: hungry and healthy.

Now in her senior season, Long Beach State’s star guard is hungry. She knew what it was like to be part of a winning team three years ago when, as a freshman, she helped lead her team to a share of the Big West Conference regular-season title. Now, after the 49ers last two dismal seasons, she wants it again.

However, it’s the health factor that could potentially keep Figueroa off the court all season.

“Hungry is definitely the word to describe it,” said Figueroa of this season. “If I come back this season, which I don’t know, but if I do, I’m craving it.”

The foot injury that sidelined Figueroa for a quarter of last season and part of her freshman season resulted in yet another surgery back in May, her second to date. While the 49ers’ leading scorer two years running is hopeful, a medical redshirt may have to be an option. And if healthy enough to return, Figueroa will be forced to sit out a tough non-conference schedule that includes a road stretch against Washington State, Idaho, Nebraska and Arizona.

The 49ers open the season against San Diego State at 2 p.m. on Sunday in the Walter Pyramid.

New faces to look for

While Figueroa’s absence left a void the rest of the team was unable to fill last season, the depth in the roster goes farther this season and the growth has been huge. Newcomers Whitney Fields, Sahfiya Brown and Adelle Walton have changed the face of the program.

“Our team is definitely fit compared to the spot we were at last year,” Figueroa said. “We’re capable of lasting longer in timed scrimmages or last-second shots. Our instincts are better and we’re just quicker.

“It’s a new team, in a way.”

Fields redshirted last season after transferring from Arizona. The junior forward out of Miami mostly came off the bench for the Wildcats in two seasons, shooting .358 from the field and .657 from the line. In 48 games, Fields had 163 rebounds, 11 assists, 16 blocks and 29 steals.

“Coming in this fall, she really demonstrated that she took advantage of the offseason,” head coach Mary Hegarty said. “She got herself in very good shape, much better shape than she’s ever been in.”

Hegarty expects Fields to add to the already established post presence of senior Kaiti O’Brien.

“She’s definitely going to give us a little more of a post presence and the ability to score more in the paint,” Hegarty said. “As well as guard with a little more versatility in the paint.”

Fields will be starting in the five while Brown, a transfer from defending California junior college champion Mt. San Antonio College, will most likely be starting at the four spot. With returners LaTorya Barbee and Courtney Jacob returning at shooting guard and power forward, the problematic point guard situation remains.

Running the show

With Figueroa out and the departure of Tyresha Calhoun, Hegarty will look to sophomore Melanie Lisnock. A local product out of Edison High in Huntington Beach, Lisnock was a walk-on last season that played in just 13 games off the bench.

A strong off-season has instilled confidence in Hegarty that Lisnock is ready to take on the starting role.

“To her credit, there’s been a void there because of Karina’s unavailability,” Hegarty said. “She has stepped into that and really taken charge of that right now.”

Walton, a freshman out of El Cajon, Calif., is Hegarty’s other option at the point. The defense-minded guard will be splitting much of the time with Lisnock. While there is little experience between the two of them, it’s Lisnock’s work ethic and ability to persevere as a walk-on that has given her the edge.

“Melanie Lisnock is in the driver’s seat,” Hegarty said. “Melanie has come in in great shape. She went to point guard camps over the summer. She’s creating well for other people, she’s shooting the ball well and she’s also guarding well.”

Rebuilding a winning tradition

While the season is obviously full of challenges that will test the young team, the biggest challenge is how to turn the team around and get Long Beach State basketball back to what it once was.

Figueroa and O’Brien were there before the 49ers’ fall from grace. They remember the feeling of winning. The only two four-year seniors on the team have been an integral part of the team since their freshman seasons but have also become the face of a struggling program.

Carrying the team on their tired and oft-injured limbs in prior years, the weight has almost become too much to handle. Figueroa and O’Brien will now have to rely on a group of talented newcomers that Hegarty says has breathed new life into the team.

“With the new players we’ve improved in other areas like athleticism, which leads to rebounding and defense and scoring,” Hegarty said. “We’re going to be a lot better regardless of if Karina joins us but we’re significantly better when Karina is on the floor.”

A 9-20 season was hardly an improvement over 2006-07’s 9-23 season, although in 2007 the 49ers made a surprising run at the Big West Tournament, narrowly losing in the last seconds of the semifinal game to eventual-champion UC Riverside. And time is running out just as fast as Hegarty’s contract, which is up at the end of this season.

“I’m doing everything I can to get this program back on track,” Hegarty said. “I feel like we’ve done everything we can to make the improvements. We’re going to do our best and hope that that’s enough to get this program back where it should be.”

The rest of the Big West

In order of coaches’ poll rankings:

No. 1 UC Riverside

No. 2 UC Santa Barbara

No. 3 UC Davis

No. 4 Pacific

No. 5 Cal Poly

No. 6 CS Fullerton

No. 8 UC Irvine

No. 9 CS Northridge

Preseason All-Conference team:

Haylee Douglas, UC Davis

Karina Figueroa, Long Beach State

Seyram Gbewonyo, UC Riverside

Jenna Green, UC Santa Barbara

Kemie Nkele, UC Riverside

Toni Thomas, CS Fullerton




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