COLUMBIA — At a Stephens College basketball game, one student is easy to find. She doesn’t play for the team, but senior Savannah Baltazar is an important part of what happens on game days at Stephens.
Identifying herself as the Stars’ “unofficial mascot,” Baltazar comes to games wearing a costume that includes a bright green shirt and two styrofoam stars painted gold. She dances on the sideline during games and leads the student section in a series of cheers to encourage some of her close friends that play on the team.
There wasn’t much for Stars fans to cheer about early this season. The team started 1-7, but a recent three-game winning streak, the longest in coach Dane Pavlovich’s five-year tenure, has given Stars’ fans a lot to celebrate.
With each win, the student crowd has become larger and louder, prompting Baltazar and the rest of the senior class to sponsor a contest to find a real mascot when the second semester starts. Participants will design their own costume and create their own routine, and the winner will be featured in a halftime show at the Stars’ remaining home games.
“It’s just better to be here when they’re up,” Baltazar said. “When we’re winning, it’s a lot more fun.”
Half of the 16 players on the Stephens roster are in their first year with the team, and the Stars struggled to find the right strategies and player combinations to keep them in games. At one point, they lost five in a row.
A stronger team chemistry and a faster style of play that takes advantage of the Stars’ depth has fostered dramatic change, though.
The Stars now use a full-court press on defense and push the pace on offense to create open shots. Pavlovich first started using this strategy against Manhattan Christian College.
“It was all about tempo, I think that we wanted to play faster than them,” Pavlovich said. “We really thought that if we could get them deep into their bench, maybe their legs would be heavier because we continued to press them.”
The Stars’ press is the biggest part of their recent success, averaging more than 10 steals per game. The Stars have also committed 20 fewer turnovers than their opponents over the stretch.
Junior guard Bug Dominguez is the Stars’ leader on defense. The most vocal member of the team, Dominguez makes sure every player knows what’s happening, often yelling out plays and using her whole body to give visual signals to the other players. Though she’s the smallest player listed on the Stars’ roster, Dominguez is known for her aggressive style of defense that flusters opposing players and forces turnovers.
“She’s the general out there,” Pavlovich said. “Bug just does so many little things that don’t show up on a stat sheet, and her play just adds up.”
Dominguez came from a high school that used a press, and she says her gritty defense is her most significant contribution to the team.
“I think we all like running a full-court press. We all have more intensity,” Dominguez said. “Me personally, I love pressing.”
On a team with no seniors, Dominguez and her fellow juniors are called on to play a leadership role. Junior forward Ali Roper has been the Stars leading scorer during the winning streak, knocking down nine three-pointers, including a game-winner with 9.3 seconds left against Principia.
“I am a three-point shooter, and that is my job, so that’s what I look for,” Roper said.
Pavlovich is enjoying the recent winning streak and credits the wins to the depth of his team and the players’ ability to understand and execute their individual roles. The Stars have had a different scoring leader in each of the three wins, and Pavlovich likes his team’s balanced attack.
“What we found is that we don’t necessarily have that one person that is a go-to scorer, but we’ve got a core group that is playing really well right now,” Pavlovich said. “Any time you have a team where you have a lot of people stepping up and doing different things to help you and contribute to a win, that’s a pretty good scenario to be in.”