What if . . . ?
The words probably preceed many of the thoughts of the players on the Cal State Northridge women's basketball team.
For players who fall just short of their dream, it's not an uncommon preface.
Coach Leslie Milke's Lady Matadors enjoyed the best season in the program's 12-year history, running up a 20-9 record and advancing to a postseason tournament for the first time since 1977.
But whenever the Lady Matadors really needed a big win, they looked up and found Cal Poly Pomona standing in the way. The defending NCAA Division II champion Broncos played the role of the wicked stepmother in Northridge's fairy tale. Of CSUN's nine losses this season, four were to Pomona.
Perhaps none of the losses hurt more than the one Tuesday night at Pomona in the championship game of the West Regional. After being routed by the Broncos, 91-59, on Jan. 18, and losing two close games later in the season, the Lady Matadors jumped out to a 10-4 lead Tuesday and controlled most of the first half. They shot 52% from the field in the first half, but came undone after that, shooting only 18%. Northridge lost the game, 66-46. It was the Lady Matadors' 22nd consecutive loss to Pomona, which will host Bellarmine College tonight in the quarterfinals for the right to go to the Final Four in Springfield, Mass. next week.
CSUN forward Denise Sitton said she isn't dwelling on the losses.
"You're always going to have those Division II powerhouses," she reasoned.
Northridge may be on its way to becoming one of those powerhouses.
Milke sensed that at the start of the season, when she said, "The last time we went to the playoffs was in the 1976-77 season, and I think that this team is as good, if not better than that team."
It was a daring prediction for a coach coming off a 9-15 season. But she was right.
The Lady Matadors, who finished in sixth place last season in the California Collegiate Athletic Assn., placed behind only Pomona this season. They were ranked 10th in the first NCAA Division II poll and finished the season ranked No. 14. Milke was named the District 8 and CCAA coach of the year.
Northridge will lose three of its five starters next season, but returns Sitton and sophomore forward Regan O'Hara, both all-conference selections. Sitton led the team in scoring with an average of11.9 and is fourth on the school's career scoring list. O'Hara has been a starter and all-conference selection since she was a freshman.
Together with senior center Tara Flanagan, Sitton and O'Hara formed one of the top Division II front lines on the West Coast, second only perhaps to Pomona.
In Flanagan, CSUN loses its No. 2 scorer. She had an 11.6 average. The Lady Matadors will also be missing their top three guards.
Renee Loch, who set the school's season record for assists, and Lori Costello, the most valuable player in Northridge's win over UC Davis in the first round of the West Regional, were in their final seasons.
So was Marcella Nino, who started at guard for most of the season before Milke inserted Costello during the CCAA postseason tournament.
Said Sitton: "Overall, I think the season was a big success for us, with all the records we broke. The loss of those players hurts, but we can go as far as we want to next year."