New-look Cal opens season on the road

Guard Layshia Clarendon usually doesn’t like to travel, but she will make an exception this year.

It’s not that Clarendon misses the airline food or the long airport lines. She is just fired about traveling with the Cal women’s basketball team and building camraderie that was lacking in the previous two years.

“The team camraderie, the airports, the giant traveling bags … tiring as it gets, I’m just excited about hanging out with the team,” Clarendon said.

This weekend, the Bears will have plenty of time to build that camraderie, traveling 3,000 miles to New Brunswick, N.J., for their first regular season contest against No. 17 Rutgers at the Rutgers Athletics Center.

For new coach and New York native Lindsay Gottlieb, Sunday’s 11 a.m. matinee against the Scarlet Knights could not be a better Cal coaching debut. Gottlieb is honored to coach against Hall of Fame coach and women’s basketball pioneer C. Vivian Stringer.

“I am a student of the game,” Gottlieb said. “(Coach Stringer) is one of the coaches that have done so much for the game before there was money and TV coverage on the sport.”

In her 41st season on the sidelines, Stringer has pieced together another Final Four-contending team this season. With the top four scorers returning, including guards April Sykes and Khadijah Rushdan, Rutgers has five seniors returning for one more push at the March Madness.

The Scarlet Knights’ ambitions have taken a huge blow in the past few days. Last week, forward Chelsey Lee — who led the team in rebounding — suffered a season-ending right shoulder injury, leaving a big void inside the middle for Stringer’s squad.

“They have enough people on that roster that can step up in place of Lee,” Gottlieb said. “I think they will go small, using a four-guard lineups. That can pose some matchup problems.”

The Bears have also taken an injury blow to one of their post players in recent days. Highly touted freshman Justine Hartman sprained her ankle in the fourth quarter in the exhibition match against Vanguard last Thursday. Hartman hasn’t practiced since, and it seems unlikely that she will see any action against Rutgers.

While Hartman’s injury limits how much Gottlieb can exploit Lee’s loss, Cal still prides itself on its newfound depth, an aspect of the game that was sorely lacking for the past couple of years. With a top-10 recruiting class that includes Hartman and point guard Brittany Boyd, the Bears would have a deeper rotation, mixed with veteran experience and youthful energy that was not seen in previous years under former coach Joanne Boyle.

“Coach Boyle’s rotation was only six, seven players a game, and everybody was banged out and exhausted,” guard Eliza Pierre said. “Now we are playing a good 10 to 11 people, just to know that who we put in a game, we can keep the lead. It’s really comforting to know that.”