The Whittier College women's basketball team is leading the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, and Will Morris is enjoying the moment, fleeting though it may be.
"If we win the last three games, we win the conference," the coach said. "For the first time, we feel like we're in control of our own destiny.
"But we've got a lot of work still to do. Truly, anybody can beat anybody in this conference."
Morris, in his third year, couldn't be more correct. With crucial victories over Occidental and Cal Lutheran last week and La Verne on Tuesday night, the Poets moved into first place with an 8-2 record, half a game ahead of Claremont-Mudd-Scripps.
The job is not finished. They still have road games at Redlands and Claremont-Mudd to end the regular season.
In the ultra-competitive SCIAC, two games separate four teams. Claremont-Mudd defeated Cal Lutheran, 79-63, on Tuesday to keep pace with Whittier, while knocking the Lancers into a third-place tie with Redlands at 6-4. With one week left, all four are still in the running mathematically for the SCIAC title and the automatic NCAA Division III playoff berth that accompanies it.
Claremont-Mudd Coach Jodie Burton said she hasn't seen anything like it in her 22 seasons.
"I don't think we've ever had an actual situation where [four] could win the title this late in the season," she said. "Usually there are years where two teams are still in it but even then, that hasn't been that often."
The balance, Burton said, is the result of increased quality in the league. No better example is Whittier. Only three years ago the Poets were coming off a 24-game conference losing streak.
Morris was new to the women's game, having been a men's team assistant coach at La Verne and Cal State Hayward. He had experienced turnarounds at both programs, though, and knew what it took to do something similar at Whittier.
First, he called every junior college in Southern California, looking for players. After making some inroads in that area, he began recruiting high school players, such as Robin Ishibashi, a sophomore and the Poets' top player. She averages 15.8 points, 4.4 rebounds and is among the league leaders in assists and steals.
"I've only got one player that's been with me all three years and that's [guard] Tracy Cruz," Morris said. "I told her that we are going to compete for a conference championship. I'm sure that she was just being nice and smiling back at me, but I really believed it and I had to make sure everyone else believed it too.
"The most important thing is to sell players your vision of where the program is going. I've told my players to enjoy the road we're on. You don't know how many times this comes around."
In Morris' first season, the Poets won eight games. Last season, they went 14-11. Now, they are 19-4 and maybe looking at their first postseason appearance in years.
"Whittier has been up and down over the years," Burton said. "Will has done a great job over there."
Claremont-Mudd is having another strong season under Burton. The Athenas are 15-6 overall and 6-1 in conference.
Though they are in the thick of the SCIAC race, they have the toughest road to the title. The Athenas have one extra game to play, beginning tonight against three-time defending champion Cal Lutheran. Then they play at Occidental, Redlands and the home finale against Whittier.
They have also survived the loss of third-leading scorer Rebekah Chae, who suffered a season-ending torn knee ligament last week. Felicia Davis and Aubrey Edgmon, the SCIAC's top two scorers, have helped Claremont get past the setback.
"We just have some great people and they're very team-oriented," Burton said. "They've become even more so, now that we don't have Rebekah."
Either Whittier or Claremont-Mudd could win the title. Maybe neither.
But to be in the chase is what the coaches relish.
"It's a lot more fun to go into the last two weeks playing for something," Burton said.
Cal State L.A. junior third baseman Jay Caligiuri became the first player in California Collegiate Athletic Assn. history to hit four home runs in one game in last week's 14-10 victory at Point Loma Nazarene.
Caligiuri, who added a single and drove in seven runs, became only the 13th player in Division II to accomplish the feat. Sonoma State's Derek Bell, the CCAA player of the year last season, held the previous league record with three homers in a game last season.
Cal State San Bernardino's 10-game winning streak ended in a 66-60 loss at Cal State Stanislaus, but the seventh-ranked Coyotes (18-2, 14-2) still maintain a two-game lead in the CCAA men's basketball race over Cal State Bakersfield (15-6, 12-4).
The Coyotes have been toughest at home, where they are 11-0 and can extend that record against Cal State L.A. and Cal State Dominguez Hills this week.
USC won the NoGrip Invitational women's water polo tournament at UC San Diego by defeating UC Santa Barbara, 11-4, in the championship game Sunday.
Nina Wengst, a junior from Germany, led the Trojans, scoring 10 goals in four victories, four of them against the Gauchos.
Pepperdine defeated UCLA, 5-2, in a matchup of two top-10 women's tennis teams, despite a loss by the nation's top-ranked doubles team, Ipek Senoglu and Paola Palencia.
The Waves got key singles victories from Cintia Tortorella, Monika Horvath and Anh Nguyen. Palencia defeated UCLA's Catherine Hawley, 6-2, 2-6, 7-6, at No. 2 singles.
Senior Corrie Murphy, junior Kellie Brennan and sophomores Michala Kwasny and Asa Sandlund each won two events, leading the No. 10 USC women's swimming and diving team to a 164-136 upset Saturday of No. 6 UCLA at the USC McDonald's Swim Stadium.