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Female basketball player attempts jumpshot with coach in background

Strong finish propels women to NWAC basketball tournament

Yaks reach championships for first time since 2020

Entering the final month of the regular season, the Yaks’ hopes to earn a berth into the 2024 NWAC Basketball Championships were teetering on the brink, with season-ending injuries to three major contributors forcing the team to shuffle its line-up.

“That forced a few girls into more prominent roles than they were expecting to have to fulfill so early in their college careers,” said Head Coach Robin Andrea. “Most of us were playing out of position, by necessity.”

The adversity forced the team to grow, however, both individually and collectively. During the final month of the regular season, the team found its footing and won six of eight games in February to claim the No. 3 seed in the East Region, finishing the regular season with an 8-6 conference record (14-11 overall).

“February felt like the most ‘normal’ month we had as a team all year,” he said. “The roster didn’t change, we were essentially the healthiest we had been all year, and as a result we were able to find ourselves as a team.”  

That translated into more confidence as a team in what they could achieve.  

“With all the change occurring we became accustomed to the necessity of flexibility and answered the call of responsibility numerous times,” Andrea said.

Female basketball player attempts layup
TOP: Freshman guard Abby Gilbert attempts a 3-pointer versus Umpqua Community College in the NWAC Sweet 16 in front of the Yaks bench and Head Coach Robin Andrea. ABOVE: Freshman guard Alina Sapilak rises for a layup following a steal in the Sweet 16 game.

The Yaks took on South No. 2 seed Umpqua Community College in the Sweet 16 round of the conference tournament, falling 83-66 as the team struggled to find its touch on offense.

“We felt like we were successful in almost every phase of the game, we simply didn’t shoot the ball very well,” said Andrea. “Our girls did a great job of executing the game plan, and we gave ourselves an opportunity to succeed.”

Though the Yaks had hoped to make it further in the tournament, Andrea said the team finished the season grateful for what it achieved and thankful for the time they had together. 

“Getting to the tournament is always the goal,” Andrea said. “It’s validation of the hard work these ladies have put in during their time at YVC and to make it, in the East Region especially, is a tremendous accomplishment. I think it underscores for our athletes that the way we progress through the off-season, the pre-season and the work that they put in throughout is worth it, that it works, and that coming to YVC to play basketball is the right decision.”

Female basketball player attempts jump shot
Sophomore forward Blake Barbee attempts a jump shot in the Sweet Sixteen.

The team faced plenty of doubters before the 2023-24 season began, with last season’s standout player, 2022-2023 East Region MVP Aliyah Finch, transferring to Central Washington University. As injuries mounted, so did doubts that the Yaks would qualify for post-season play for the first time since 2020 — though not within the team.

“We believed it was possible because of our work ethic, our buy-in to each other, and I could not be more proud of this group,” Andrea said.

In particular, Andrea noted sophomore Faith McCarty playing out of position yet still being one of the league leaders in assists and shooting percentage, sophomore Paris Wilson accepting the challenge of shouldering a large offensive role in addition to her natural instincts as a defender, forward Blake Barbee overcoming multiple knee issues and procedures to average a double/double per 40 minutes, and wing Imani Brown joining the team despite not having played basketball in more than four years and bringing a much-needed level of toughness and grit.

Female basketball players high five one another
The Yaks during team introductions before their Sweet Sixteen game versus Umpqua at Columbia Basin College.

Freshman Alina Sapilak, who in high school mainly served as a spot-up shooter, also took on an expanded role for the Yaks and led the East Region in rebounds. During the week of Feb. 19 – 25, Sapilak sparked YVC to critical victories over Big Bend and Spokane with a combined 19 rebounds, 41 points, nine assists and five steals — enabling the team to clinch its spot in the NWAC tournament and garnering the conference’s Player of the Week award.

For the season, Wilson and Sapilak were both named All-NWAC East First First-Team and All-Defensive Team selections.

Andrea praised those members from his first recruiting class at YVC who are graduating this year: Barbee, McCarty, Wilson and Hope Driscoll.

“I am grateful for the confidence they showed by coming to YVC, essentially purely on faith in how we could help them,” he said. “I believe we have fulfilled that promise and the program would not be where it is today without that vote of confidence and that veritable leap of faith. I am forever grateful to them for that.”

Female basketball player dribbles past defender
Sophomore guard Faith McCarty looks for an opening in Umpqua's defense.

With their departure, Andrea says it’s essential to bring in a new class of student-athletes who can continue the program’s progress.

“Additionally, our returners are going to have to be ready to step into larger roles next season,” he noted. “It will be incumbent upon them to put in the requisite time working to develop their skills so that they can meet and exceed those expectations.”

Beyond the team’s achievements on the court, Andrea said there are numerous moments off-the-court that he’ll cherish for the rest of his life.

“The way this team has come to be a like a family and allowed my two sons and wife to be a part of that family is probably my favorite part of this season,” Andrea said. “My sons have 14 sisters now, and the joy they share in the moments after games, the fun they have in practice, there is nothing better.” 

Female basketball player dribbles as teammate sets picks versus defender
Forward Blake Barbee sets a pick for sophomore guard Paris Wilson in the Sweet 16.

Story by Dustin Wunderlich, director of community relations. Photos by Dan Acosta.