Originally published Feb. 7, 2012
By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Sports Editor
The University of La Verne’s Riki Murakami is becoming intimately acquainted with the courts around the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Not only the arenas, mind you, but the actual floor surfaces – she’s spent a fair amount of time sprawled across many of them. It seems the Leopards can’t get through a game without the scrappy point guard hitting the hardwood with a thud.
“I forget how small I am sometimes,” said Murakami, following her team’s loss Feb. 2 at Occidental. She had to be peeled off the floor in that one as well, missing the final several minutes of the game after being kicked in the ear by an opposing player.
Yes, you read correctly, kicked, as is common in, say, soccer.
“I don’t know how she got her foot that high, but my teammates saw her foot hit me in the ear,” explained Murakami, the true frosh who is listed at 5 foot 2, but admits she’s probably 5-1 “on a good day.” She was also nursing a tweaked ankle and reported that someone “ran me over” earlier in the game.
La Verne may be justified if they’re feeling a bit trampled. The season began with an energetic and talented group of young players – only two seniors returned from last year – who began to gel instantly under head coach Matt Rogers. But the season had barely begun when the body count started.
“Part of it is the way we play,” Rogers commented. “We have very young players learning how we like to run our game. Ten have never played a full season with us, so we know we have to be patient. We know this is the first step, getting them to play hard and trying to make sure nobody gets hurt, all the while learning to play with poise and composure.”
The Leopards have seen, on more than one occasion this season, flashes of greatness followed by disheartening setback. Murakami lit up the scoreboard in a gutsy, 15-point performance on Dec. 8 against La Sierra, and was looking for more when she suffered a particularly scary knee injury. She was absent at practice the following day, when the Rafu visited to begin this story.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I was actually in the emergency room,” she explained.
Injury, however, hasn’t been La Verne’s only enemy. Sophomore Megan Musashi is the team’s top scorer, averaging 12 points per game and boasting a magnificent 93.5 free throw percentage, but has only been able to make an impact over the last month or so. The 5-8 forward was forced to sit out the first two months of the season with a viral infection that prevented her from taking part in any physical activity, including practice.
“It’s terrible, I come to practice and all I can do is watch,” Musashi said Dec. 9 as she did her best to focus on some homework while teammates worked out.
“We like all of our pieces, but it seems like we just catch a bad break,” Rogers said last week. “Megan missed the first eight weeks, so this is basically week four for her, but that’s only three to four weeks of practice. She couldn’t practice, so she’s just now getting to the point where’s she’s comfortable playing 20-plus minutes.”
“I don’t know that I can say anyone on the team is 100 percent right now, but we know that this is the heart of the season right now, so we’re trying to fight through it,” Murakami said. “It’s tough, but injuries are part of the season, and we didn’t expect everyone to be injured or sick all at the same time. But it speaks volumes about our toughness, how we’re able to push through, no matter who’s hurt or who’s missing. I’m really proud of this team and what we’ve been able to do.”
One very bright spot for the Leopards has been outside shooter Kelly Kika. The sophomore out of North Torrance has improved greatly upon her game since last year, averaging 9.2 points per contest and scoring in double figures nine times this season, including a 21-point performance against Redlands on Jan. 12.
Kika has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to shoot the lights out this season, and nearly did so literally at Occidental, when a jumper of hers bounced high off the rim and struck a light standard, causing it to flicker and dim momentarily.
Musashi has rebounded nicely from her illness, salvaging the balance of her shortened season in fine fashion with games such as Saturday’s 21-point performance against Cal Lutheran.
If Kika, Murakami and Musashi appear comfortable with one another, it’s because they are. Friends since elementary school, they played together on various San Gabriel Valley club teams before reaching high school.
Leopards assistant coach Lindsey Shiomi said the brand of ball taught in the Asian leagues is a perfect primer for the kind of offense they’re trying to build at La Verne.
“It’s gratifying because there have definitely been a lot more Japanese American women playing in college now,” Shiomi explained. “You even see them at the Division 1 level, which is huge for us. The fundamentals are always emphasized in those leagues, it’s a kind of run-and-gun system, where everybody can shoot threes. For us, it’s a perfect for the way we play, so it’s a good head start.”
Shiomi speaks from experience. After starring at Whittier Christian, she was a three-year starter for La Verne and went on to rewrite the record books, still holding the school’s all-time assists record…which Murakami is looking to surpass.
With four games left on their regular season schedule and their SCIAC record at three wins and seven losses, the postseason is a fading dream for La Verne, although a series of improbable events could conceivably make it happen.
“We don’t have to worry about anyone else as long as we win out,” Murakami said. “We just have to put a couple of wins together to finish out the season.”
Rogers said the playoffs are not the main concern right now; he simply wants his women to play well – and stay in one piece.
“We’re praying for miracles, but right now, we just want to finish strong. We want to get better every day and show it in every game.”
UPDATE: La Verne set an NCAA Div. III record Feb. 11 with 26 three-pointers in their win over Pomona-Pitzer. Kika sank nine from beyond the arc, breaking Shiomi’s school record.