Cal State Dominguez Hills Women’s Basketball Celebrates Historic Run To The Elite Eight

There was no epiphany. The realization that this group of women were playing basketball at a level never seen at a school forever overshadowed by USC and UCLA came gradually, one win after the other.

With Cal State up Dominguez Hills 19-0, it was abundantly clear that unprecedented success was on the horizon, that the potential for something unimaginable was within reach in any other year.

The Toros (31-2) will travel to Missouri in preparation to play Catawba (28-5) – a Salisbury, NC collegiate – in the NCAA Division II Elite Eight starting Monday. They already won the West Region Championship for the first time when they first hosted the tournament. They also won the California Collegiate Athletic Assn. Title.

The Cal State Dominguez Hills women’s basketball team and coaches celebrate after being promoted to the Elite Eight for the first time in school history.

(Matte Brown / Cal State Dominguez Hills)

And they rose to No. 4 in the national rankings, rarefied air for a program that had only been ranked No. 18 once, in 1984-85.

“I wasn’t sure for a while that I was going to be that special,” said Dominguez Hills coach John Bonner. “In November, even into December, as we wrapped up our preseason opponents, it became clear that this was a different team, the way we were winning and our chemistry.

“We realized that something good is going to happen this year. But we couldn’t have predicted it would be this good.”

Excellence on the pitch has always been secondary to the family atmosphere and camaraderie Bonner has cultivated since taking the reins ahead of the 2016/17 season. His first team was 7-20, and it wasn’t until 13-12 last season that the Toros were on the bright side of .500.

“What people don’t always see is that we’re much more than just athletes,” said Bonner, who has a master’s degree in counseling and family therapy. “The team is bonded, they spend a lot of time together. We talk about social justice issues, women’s issues. We understand how smart and intellectual they are and how much they want to make a difference when basketball is over.”

“Our mantra is disruption, defense and rebound. We will use different presses depending on the opponent. We try to get people out of their flow and make them play differently.”

— John Bonner, coach of Cal State Dominguez Hills

The senior lead is keeper Dawnyel Lair, the CCAA Player of the Year, who began her career in Wichita State and attended a community college in New Mexico before transferring to Dominguez Hills before her junior year.

Most of her Toros teammates are sophomores and freshmen, which bodes well for her continued success this season.

“It’s a role that I inherited, I wasn’t really looking for it,” said Lair, who runs the Women’s Basketball Coaches Assn. First Team All-American honors. “We have a fairly young group and it turns out they want to hear from me. I just see it as a challenge. I’m the eldest of my siblings, so I’m used to people looking up to me. The team is like a family. I’m kind of like a big sister to everyone.”

In preseason, Bonner gave each player dog tags and asked them to give one to a teammate they see as inspirational. Lair ended up with a large handful.

Cal State Dominguez Hills coach John Bonner stands on a ladder and holds up a net that knocked his team down.

Cal State Dominguez Hills coach John Bonner holds up a net after his team knocked it down March 13 in Carson. The Toros celebrated promotion to the Elite Eight for the first time in school history.

(Jena Rouser / Cal State Dominguez Hills)

“She’s a little quiet and her teammates wanted her to speak up,” Bonner said. “She’s super humble. When we select teams for intrasquad scrimmages, she selects teammates who don’t get many minutes. She is a team first person.”

Lair, who attended Fairfax High, averaged 13.9 points and led a balanced offense that also scored 13 points per game from Lakewood High second forward Asia Jordan and Long Beach Poly freshman Nala Williams. Jordan was MVP of the West Regional.

“Our mantra is disruption, defense and rebound,” said Bonner. “We will use different presses depending on the opponent. We try to get people out of their flow and make them play differently.”

The Toros have prevailed against almost every opponent so far. What do you know about Catawba? Not sure if it matters.

“All games will boil down to us keeping our identity in mind,” Lair said. “We want to understand what they’re doing, but the most important thing is to keep doing what we’ve been doing all season.”

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