It's becoming an annual affair for the Cal Poly Pomona women's basketball team.
Well, almost annual.
For the fifth time in the six years of the NCAA Division II playoffs, the Broncos have reached the final-four tournament in Springfield, Mass.
If tradition holds true, it could be another successful trip. In their first four appearances, the Broncos have won three championships and finished second once.
So it is no surprise that Pomona, which has won the last two titles, is the favorite in this one that starts today at Springfield Civic Center.
The Broncos, 28-2 and ranked No. 2 in Division II, will face the ninth-ranked University of Pittsburgh-Johnstown (25-4) in the semifinals at 5:35 p.m. (PST). In the other semifinal, No. 5 New Haven (27-2) meets No. 7 Northern Kentucky (25-4) at 3:05 (PST). The winners meet for the championship at 3:05 Saturday.
Making matters worse for the competition, Pomona seems to be peaking, having won eight in a row since a 78-63 loss to Cal State Los Angeles on Feb. 6.
"We may have peaked a little early last year because it was the first year of the conference tournament," Pomona Coach Darlene May said. "This year we've adjusted a bit. We've seen what those two (extra tournament) games did to us, and I think we are peaking at the right time."
If that's not enough, the Broncos are also the only semifinalist that has reached the final four in the past.
"Hopefully, we have the advantage of having been there," May said. "So maybe we won't get caught up in all of the hoopla."
Not everything is coming up roses for the Broncos, though.
Pomona has been hindered in the playoffs by an ankle injury to senior forward Debra Larsen (5-10), the team's leading scorer and rebounder, who has played in the last two title games.
Larsen, averaging 16.6 points and 11.3 rebounds, played sparingly in playoff games against Cal State Chico and North Dakota State after injuring her ankle during the conference tournament and has been playing with an air cast.
"I talked to her Sunday after the (North Dakota State) game and her ankle was a little swollen," May said. Larsen, who scored only 8 points and had 12 rebounds in the playoffs, was held out of practice until Wednesday because of the injury.
With Larsen hurting, the Broncos have had to rely on their other starters in postseason play and they have come through nicely. The leaders have been guards Michelle McCoy and Paula Tezak, center Niki Bracken and forward Marcine Edmonds.
"They're the kind of team that is very determined, and I think as we get closer and closer they're just determined not to lose," May said.
The most determined may be Tezak, whose rebounding belies her 5-8 frame. Tezak, who averages 7.8 points and 8 rebounds, had 27 rebounds and 21 points in playoff wins over 17th-ranked Chico (56-44) and third-ranked North Dakota (77-67).
"The one word that describes Paula is desire ," May said. "She just has complete desire. If Niki Bracken had that kind of desire she would get 25 rebounds a game."
Bracken and Edmonds have performed well in the playoffs. Bracken, a 6-2 freshman who averages 13.9 points and 7.4 rebounds, scored 17 points and added 10 rebounds in the victory over North Dakota. Edmonds, a 6-0 sophomore, is averaging 9.1 points and 6.5 rebounds. The Broncos have also received strong support from reserve guard Cathy Gooden, a 5-5 sophomore who scored 19 points in the playoffs.
"Bracken and Edmonds have developed like we knew they would have to for us to go far in the playoffs," May said.
While the Broncos have received help from some unexpected sources, McCoy has been steady all along. The 5-6 senior, a smooth ball handler who averages 14.8 points and 7.9 assists, has been in top form in the playoffs with 43 points and 20 assists.
"This is my last year and the one thing I wanted was to win the national championship," said McCoy, the school's all-time assist leader. "In order for us to win I have to play well. I feel like I'm peaking and hopefully I'll continue to play as well in Springfield as I have here."
Pomona will face a Pittsburgh-Johnstown team that pulled off the biggest upset in the tournament with a 68-63 win over top-ranked Delta State of Mississippi in the quarterfinals last week.
The Mountain Cats, who finished second in the Mason-Dixon Conference, are led by junior forward Jill Halapin (6-0), senior center Karen Sayers (6-3) and junior point guard (5-7) Sally Mosay. Halapin averages 19.2 points and 8.6 rebounds and Mosay 16.9 points and 7.7 assists.
But for Pittsburgh-Johnstown to pull off another upset, the Mountain Cats will have to survive Pomona's aggressive defense, which limited Chico to 28.2% of its field-goal attempts and North Dakota to 44.9%.
McCoy said it is the pressure defense that has helped the Broncos most. "Our defense is probably the No. 1 thing we have over last year's team," she said. "We played good defense last year but the personnel on this year's team allows us to play it better.
"As long as we keep playing that way, I don't think anyone can beat us."