Preparation for this season was interrupted late last spring. It started with a sorrowful phone call.
The husband of the women's basketball coach at Westmont College in Santa Barbara had died from an embolism (blockage). The coach making that call, Kirsten Moore, was eight months pregnant.
On the eve of fall practices, coach Moore gathered her team and insisted, amid tears, that she would work this season, provided she received maximum effort. She also warned she was prone to moments of breaking down. Everyone was on board, including freshman center Lauren Sende from Oak Ridge High School. Sende said it was a moving moment from a coach who asked also that the players become her extended new family.
Moore gave birth to a girl, named Alexis in honor of father Alex Moore, who died 12 hours after surgery to treat Crohn's disease.
Alexis became the team's bubbly, crawling mascot. Alexis this season was giggling cargo on team trips and joyfully passed around before games. In a fitting finish to an emotionally trying season, Alexis was hoisted like a champion when Westmont beat Lee University of Tennessee 71-65 in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics championship game on March 19.
The Warriors won five games in six days in the 32-team event.
"When coach Moore addressed us in that first meeting, she said it would be hard this year, that she'd do it if we would, too," Sende said Sunday night. "That summed up our entire season: It's going to be difficult, but we'll push through together. What a season. We really supported each other and Coach."
Westmont competes in college basketball obscurity. But Sende said her team competed just as hard as any team at any level, and the rewards are just as cherished.
"We heard that if we were an NCAA school, this would be Hollywood," Sende said. "It's still special."
The 6-foot-2 Sende played in 32 games for Westmont (30-4), averaging 12 minutes, four rebounds and two points. She scored eight points in a second-round playoff game, a 77-70 victory over Rogers State, prompting Moore, a former Cal assistant, to say, "We don't win that game without Lauren."
Sende said her team would not have achieved without their inspirational coach.
Alex Moore last May seemed to be recovering from surgery. He told his wife to go home and rest. A blood clot formed shortly after she left the hospital. He was 31.
The Westmont team filled the third row of a church for the memorial.
Coach Moore, 37, told her team then, "Thanks for loving me."
"We totally would have understood if Coach took the season off," said Sende, a biology major who also enjoys English and political science. "And it's not just this year that will be hard for her.
"You just don't get over something like that. Next year will be just as hard, and we'll play just as hard for her, too."
Sende added about baby Alexis: "Oh, we love her. We all pass her around. She crawls in on film sessions. She's the cutest thing. It'll be cool to grow up with her. She'll be four years old when I graduate. Crazy."
Sende's other role was helping bridge the language and culture barrier with Westmont's top player. Tugce Canitez, a 6-2 senior forward who starred on the Turkish national team, had 25 points and 20 rebounds in the final.
"She's become one of my closest friends," Sende said. "She knew very little English, but she's really smart, and she made me realize how hard English is. She speaks it better than she writes it, and the more she learns it, the funnier she gets."
Sende will spend her summer in open gym workouts at Sacramento State and with area conditioning guru Danielle Viglione, a Sac-Joaquin Section Hall of Fame inductee last fall from her days as a Del Campo standout 20 years ago.
"I want to get better and really help my team," Sende said. "I want to get stronger, faster. I'll be able to play better defense, get more rebounds. I'm ready for it. I want to take it to a new level."