Courting Success: UCLA Women's Basketball
Published Jul 25, 2014 8:00 AM
The Bruins have scored their first-ever No.1 recruiting class in women's basketball.
A new era in UCLA women's basketball is about to tip off. This year, Coach Cori Close M.Ed. '95 scored the Bruins' first No. 1 recruiting class in the nation. And something about these freshmen thrills her even more than their ranking.
"There's a complementary puzzle being built that is selfless, that is different, that is diverse, that is driven," she says, "and that's what I'm most excited about as their coach."
This quintet of high school standouts — guards Recee' Caldwell and Jordin Canada, forwards Monique Billings and Lajahna Drummer, and wing Kelli Hayes — were all ranked nationally in the top 40, with three in the top 10. But it's not just their individual achievements that are impressive; it's their collective game plan that inspires confidence in the Bruins' future.
"They wanted to blaze a new trail," says Close, alluding to the fact that UCLA women's basketball has yet to win an NCAA championship. "They wanted to be the women who started something, who would leave a legacy that other people would dream about following in."
Caldwell, the first to commit, can't wait to start that legacy. Her year-one objective? "A Final Four run," she says. "That's our main goal. We have one mind-set. We are one this year."
But Caldwell's commitment to UCLA was about more than just the game. A McDonald's All-American who was born in Riverside and moved to San Antonio, Texas, in 2007, she praises Close for her vision for the program and a culture that values the person over the athlete.
"I came here to grow as a woman," she says. "That was Coach Cori's main focus."
Canada, a good friend of Caldwell's and a fellow McDonald's All-American, also cites the Bruin culture as a prime reason for committing. "[The staff] really cared a lot about me as a person, rather than as a basketball player, and that's what stood out," says the Los Angeles native.
With Hayes, Drummer and Billings rounding out the class, along with recruited walk-on Chrissy Baird from Illinois — who, according to Close, "has dreamed about being a Bruin since she was 9 years old" — the program is poised to shoot for the upper ranks of college basketball.
But there will be no resting on their laurels for this group. With a daunting non-conference schedule, starting in November, that includes two-time defending NCAA champion Connecticut and last season's runner-up, Notre Dame, their introduction to college hoops will be anything but a slam dunk.
"It's definitely a challenge, but … we're all up for it," Canada says. "We're not afraid. I know we're ready."
"I love it, I am so hyped," says Caldwell. "I think about it all the time."
And her thoughts on filling that empty corner in UCLA's Hall of Champions? "We're so going to bring home one of those [championship trophies]," Caldwell vows. "Of course, you want to get one every year, but we're going to bring at least one."