Long Beach State women’s hoops team, an inspiration

It’s been a dark 10 months since the COVID-19 pandemic settled over Long Beach and the rest of the world. There’s been so much death and hopelessness that it’s become even more important to look for light wherever we can—whether it’s an inspirational story or the rare leader who can speak honestly about the complexities of how we move forward at a time where our priorities are being re-evaluated on an hourly basis.

One sports team in the city has offered just about every kind of inspiration you could ask for these last few months: the Long Beach State women’s basketball team. The Beach is currently 5-1 overall and a perfect 4-0 in the Big West Conference. Their only loss of the season was a five-point defeat at USC.

This team is in first place in conference by two games and is one of only two undefeated teams of the teams who’ve played a game, along with UC Irvine. If they can keep up their winning ways, big history is on the line. The team hasn’t won an outright regular season conference title since Joan Bonvicini was the head coach, in 1988-89, the first year of the Big West. They’ve since tied for the crown twice, in 1991 and 2006.

This Long Beach State team, which finished fifth in conference last year with an 8-8 record, has a chance at history. To say it hasn’t been easy, of course, is an understatement.

A few months ago, they were practicing on the tennis courts with wheel-out basketball hoops, laughing with each other as the Santa Ana winds blew free throw attempts two feet to the left of the rim. They quarantined on campus in the dorms for weeks for the right to even practice, and have continued to sacrifice their freedom for their safety. The program has taken 961 tests for the coronavirus since resuming practice, and have had just two positive tests, both from non-student athletes.

Their best player, Naomi Hunt, is an inspiration herself. After sitting out for almost two years with injury, she said she was happy to be back on the court, no matter what it took.

“Having basketball taken away from me was so hard, I honestly would have done anything to get back on the court,” she said after a win earlier this year.

That sacrifice is what’s inspired their head coach, Jeff Cammon, to coach this season. Cammon has been more candid about his reservations with playing than most collegiate coaches, and he admitted to having had some deep thoughts about opting his team out.

“There are so many things going on in this world right now that are more important than basketball,” he said during a conversation before the season. “We have coaches who go home to their families, to their parents or to little kids after every practice, and I have to think about them, too. But seeing what our girls were willing to go through for this opportunity, that’s what made up my mind. If they’re willing to sacrifice to play, then I will always be there to support them and do what I can to make it happen for them.”

Cammon admitted before the year that he wasn’t that concerned with how his team finished record-wise, he just wanted his players to know they were supported, and he wanted everyone to be safe. Obviously, the challenges of COVID-19 and constant testing remain large, but it’s worth noting that this family-first approach focuses less on results and more on bonding has, in fact, yielded the team’s best on-court start in years.

The Beach will continue its season this Friday and Saturday at 4 p.m. in the Walter Pyramid, as it hosts Cal State Fullerton. Fans still aren’t allowed into games but they’re streamed for free on the university’s athletics website.

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Mike and JJ go together like mac and cheese: they’re best friends, business partners and Long Beach sports experts. They’ve been working together for over a decade covering Long Beach local sports and now run the562.org, a community-funded nonprofit media outlet.