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Undefeated and Uninvited to the Dance, California Baptist Introduces Itself to the College Hoops World

After a recent transition to Division I, the 20–0 Lancers aren't eligible for the 2021 women's NCAA tournament. But they can still join an exclusive club.

It’s Thanksgiving 2019 in America, but eight Division I women’s basketball teams are north of the border in Victoria, British Columbia, for the Greater Victoria Invitational. The nighttime matchup pits No. 3 Stanford against California Baptist University, seemingly a battle of sharks and minnows in the grand scheme of the sport.

Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer has over 1,000 career Division I wins to her name. California Baptist, a Division I newbie, has 25. To make things more intimidating for the Lancers, one of Stanford’s players is dunking in warmups.

“Going in it was like, ‘This is going to be a mess, we don’t have a post [player], they’re gigantic, we’re little,’ ” CBU point guard Ane Olaeta recalls.

The opposite happened. California Baptist, in its second year in Division I, played the Cardinal tight from wire to wire. The Lancers rallied from 13 down at the half to get within a point late in the fourth quarter before losing by five.

“The look on Stanford people’s faces, they were just like, ‘What is happening? Who are they?’ ” guard Sydney Palma says. “That’s the best basketball memory I have.”

More people know who the Lancers are now. CBU is 20–0 this season, one of only two women’s teams in the nation still undefeated. The other, Bucknell, has dealt with several pandemic-related disruptions and has played just eight games. California Baptist is the only team outside of a major conference in the last five years to start 20–0, joining UConn, Louisville, Mississippi State and NC State in that exclusive club. It’s won conference games by an average margin of 20.1 points, and has clinched the WAC regular-season title. The Lancers are No. 87 in the NCAA’s NET rankings and No. 8 in the most recent Mid Major Top 25.

California Baptist women's basketball poses after winning the WAC regular-season title

Yet no matter what happens in the CBU’s final two regular-season games and the WAC tournament in Las Vegas, you won’t see the Lancers in this month’s NCAA tournament field. But it’s through no fault of their own. They didn’t break any rules to earn themselves a postseason ban. They’re simply too new to the Division I party to get invited to the Big Dance. CBU is in the third year of a four-year transition period from Division II to Division I, and teams are not eligible to compete in the NCAA tournament during that time.

“I think it's something the NCAA needs to look at,” CBU head coach Jarrod Olson says. “I think four years a long time; it really penalizes the kids more than anything.”

Olson proposes that teams be allowed to make the NCAA tournament during the transition period but wouldn’t receive the payout from the NCAA. Instead, that money could be distributed to the rest of the conference. But those changes take time, and for now CBU is staring down a unique place in the NCAA record books.

If it completes an undefeated season, it will be the first team in men’s or women’s college basketball to go undefeated and not reach the NCAA tournament since 1983, when the Oral Roberts women’s team didn’t qualify. Back then, the women’s tournament featured only 36 teams, the Golden Eagles weren’t in a conference and played almost half of their games against non-D-I teams.

Even though they won’t be able to complete their dream season in style, CBU’s meteoric rise from NAIA power to a pair of D-II Final Fours in five years to now being on the brink of an undefeated D-I season is nothing short of remarkable. And all postseason hope isn’t lost: The WNIT has been in contact with California Baptist about playing in that tournament, a solid consolation prize.

“That's a really good goal for us because I think that's a tournament we think we can get into and actually win a couple games,” Olson says. “The NCAA obviously would be amazing, right? But the reality is, it's kind of fun for about the first five minutes against UConn, right? Maybe magic would happen at some point, but in that situation, you're just trying to get there.”

Still, not getting a chance to create that magic like the Lancers nearly did against Stanford last season stings. And CBU is an easy team to fall in love with: It plays fast, takes tons of threes and really shares the ball. Senior guard Olaeta leads the nation in assists per game, and the Lancers are second in the country in percentage of made shots that are assisted on, per Her Hoop Stats. Olson empowers his team to fire away with confidence and be aggressive, a style of play his players have embraced.

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“Jarrod [Olson]’s like, ‘if you’re slightly open, you’re launching that thing,’” Palma says. “You can’t be scared you’re going to miss it because you have to shoot it or you’re going to get in trouble because you didn’t shoot it, not because you shoot too much.”

California Baptist guard Ane Olaeta

Building a budding mid-major powerhouse took a lot of hard work … and a little bit of luck. Olaeta joined the CBU program the year before it made the move up from Division II. She was from a small town in Spain, and Olson only discovered her because a recruiting service he subscribed to had sent him a four-minute highlight tape of a diminutive 5' 4" point guard that had shown some flashes.

“There was something about her that just kind of was hitting me like, ‘This is our kid,’ ” Olson says.

Olson and his staff spoke with Olaeta on Skype a few times, but one major hurdle remained: She spoke very little English. With her brother serving as an interpreter, Olson was able to sell her on coming to California Baptist despite never seeing the Riverside campus in person. After a successful freshman season in which she averaged 11.1 points per game, a new challenge awaited: D-I basketball.

“You could see the size difference, the intensity level, it was just a whole different story,” Olaeta says. “I felt like a little ant running around everyone.”

One key difference between D-II and D-I is that players stay on campus during the summer to work out at the D-I level. Those workouts were necessary to get the CBU program physically up to speed.

“We were going to the weight room every day,” Olaeta says. “I’ve never been that sore in my entire life.”

Another way the program has improved tangibly is the recruiting bump that the move to D-I provides. Palma, who leads the team in three-point shooting, says that CBU was D-II for the majority of her recruiting process but her interest was piqued when she found out they were making the transition.

“My senior year, I got a letter in the mail that said [CBU] was going D-I and I said, ‘Oooh, okay!’ ” Palma says. “It brought more of my attention for sure.”

The results prove the Lancers have made progress.

“I’ll be watching the opposing team [on film] and think, ‘Boy, these guys look big’ or ‘Boy, they look athletic,’ ” Olson says. “Then I look down at our team and I’m like, ‘We look big, we look athletic.’ And I don’t think you would have thought that necessarily early on.”

Now, CBU is four wins away from capping off a record-setting season. Two wins at Seattle this weekend would complete a perfect regular season, and two more the following weekend in the WAC tournament (as the No. 1 seed, it’s already earned a spot in the semifinals) would let it cut down the nets and join some unique company in the process. If they do, the Lancers won’t have to worry about anyone not knowing their name much longer.

“Not many people know who we are. People are probably like, ‘Who’s 20–0? What school is that?’ ” Palma says. “We’re finally getting out there for people to notice us.”