By Paul Muyskens
STOCKTON - To say that the 2019-20 season was one that will be hard to forget might be an understatement in ways that no one would have predicted as the San Joaquin Delta College women's basketball team went 29-1 and were three wins away from capturing the first state title in program history before the season was canceled in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Riding a 22-game winning streak, the Mustangs advanced to the state championships for the second year in a row under Head Coach Gina Johnson, who for the third time in her coaching career at Delta College was named the California Community College Women's Basketball Coaching Association's Northern Regional Coach of the Year.
With this year's state championships set to take place at West Hills College in Lemoore, the Mustangs headed down on March 10 — after it was announced that the state championships would be played with no fans in attendance and only teams and essential staff allowed into the gym.
"I actually took two years off of basketball out of high school and it was a really great opportunity for my family to see me play in a big-time setting again, said freshman Kiara Manipol. "It was really devastating, but we knew all of our families would be watching and we were ready to get the job done and bring home the title."
With the games set to start on March 12, the team was gathered at the state banquet the night before when the world of sports changed.
Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 and the NBA started to cancel games. Later that night the NBA would suspend its season until further notice. While the players and coaches all had a little bit of an idea of what was going on in the world of professional sports, they had no idea it would lead to the eventual cancellation of the rest of the state championships and their season.
"We kind of figured we would be OK," said Johnson. "They had already limited the number of people and we were already there, so we thought we would still get to play our games."
That would all change less than 12 hours later. With the first game of the day just hours away from tipping off on quarterfinal Thursday, the season came to an unexpected early close.
"We were all happy and ready to get the day started," said freshman Donja Payne, who was named the state Co-Player of the Year earlier this postseason. "We were getting ready for walkthrough and our coach came in looking like something really bad happened. We all kinda knew they canceled it. She said it and we all cried, hugged and prayed together."
Spending the majority of the second half of the season as the No. 1- ranked team in the state, the Mustangs were considered by many as the favorites to return back to Stockton with their first-ever state championship.
"When we found out that they canceled the whole tournament it felt like a stab in our hearts, " said Manipol. "We were so confident in our team and we were confident that we were going to make it to our goal of the state (championship) game and hopefully bring the title home. It really was just heartbreaking, and you're left with a 'well, now what' kind of mentality."
Though it ended without a state championship, it was still a season for the ages as the Mustangs set multiple program records, with all of their wins coming by no fewer than nine points and an average margin of victory of 32 points. During their season-ending 22-game winning streak they went a perfect 14-0 in Big 8 Conference play, the Mustangs also saw Vanessa Cochrane named to the All-State second team while Alicia Jones received third-team honors.