Laurel Donnenwirth would have preferred attending a larger school, until she visited the Menlo College campus. Jolise Limcaco liked everything about Menlo and saw an opportunity.
The two juniors are two big reasons why the Lady Oaks' women's basketball team will be seeking its third consecutive trip to the NAIA Division II national tournament when the Cal Pac Conference tournament opens Saturday at Menlo College.
Menlo, ranked 14th in the NAIA, recently completed its second straight undefeated conference season and will be looking for its third straight tournament title, which would earn the Lady Oaks a berth in the national championships that will contested at the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City, Iowa.
Even more impressive, the Lady Oaks have no seniors on their roster.
Menlo brings a 31-game winning streak against Cal Pac Conference competition into this year's tournament, which combines both men's and women's teams.
The Lady Oaks (23-5) are the top seed and host No. 4 Simpson (12-17) in the first round at 6 p.m. on Saturday. The Menlo men (9-17) are seeded fourth and take on top-seeded Cal Maritime (24-5) at 3:30 p.m. Menlo is led by 6-foot-7 Keith Bowman, who this week was named the Cal Pac Player of the Year.
The women's championship game is slated for Monday at 6 p.m., to be followed by the men's title contest at 8 p.m.
Limcaco started as a freshmen, while Donnenwirth earned a starting spot late in the season. Limcaco recalled the senior class made an impression on her then, and she wants to continue that leadership role.
"They really wanted it," said Limcaco, who this week earned her second straight Cal Pac Player of the Year award. "And they were such a great group who considered us family. I like having that community feeling. It's like we want the best for each other."
Menlo lost to both Simpson and Cal Maritime during the regular season in 2012 and then came back to beat both of them to earn a spot in the national tournament for the first time in four years.
"There were seven new players that year," Menlo coach Shannon Osborne said. "There were four freshmen and three transfers. The early season was about getting to know each other. In January, that team started to click."
After losing at Simpson on Jan. 28, 2012, the Lady Oaks fell to 9-13 overall. They have not lost to a Cal Pac team since and are 55-10 overall during that time span.
Menlo has lost its first-round game of the national tournament in each of the past two years, including a 16-point loss to the University of Jamestown last year.
"We want something else this year," said Donnenwirth, the 2014 Cal Pac Defensive Player of the Year. "Winning more than our first-round game is the goal. Some of the best games we've played this year have come against ranked teams. It showed us how well we can play."
Menlo has a victory over the NAIA Division I's fifth-ranked Campbellsville (23-3) and a loss to No. 8 Georgetown College (17-6).
Donnenwirth, a 5-10 junior out of Carmichael, fully intended to attend a bigger school to continue both her athletic and academic career.
"I came from a small high school and wanted to experience the bigger campus," she said. "Then I came here on a recruiting trip and it was crazy how many people said hello to me, people I didn't know at all."
She still had to get used to the higher level of basketball and acknowledged it took nearly a full year before she started catching on.
"It took a lot of practice," Donnenwirth said. "The biggest difference was having more freedom to play and use your skills. It took three-fourth's of the season before I finally knew enough to start getting it right."
Donnenwirth played at El Camino High in Sacramento, a Division II school in the San Joaquin Section of the CIF. She played varsity three years and helped the school achieve a 71-18 overall record.
Limcaco played four years at St. Francis High in Sacramento, a Division I school, accumulating a 98-31 mark.
Both players helped their teams reach their respective section championship games in 2011.
"You always look for the girls who want to compete," said Osborne, in her sixth season at Menlo and the three-time Cal Pac Coach of the Year. "I like to watch them play to see if they play hard and if they can shot the basketball. In the Cal Pac, all you try to do every day is compete. During practice these players challenge each other. It's a high intensity group."
Osborne (116-57 at Menlo) took the helm from Caitlin Collier (172-96 at Menlo), who started the program in 1998 before accepting a position at UNLV, where she serves as associate head coach.
High expectations were built in from the start and that's how Osborne likes it.
An all-conference player at Pomona-Pitzer, 1991-95, she started her coaching career as an assistant at her alma mater, Redmond High in Washington.
Osborne held similar positions at Texas-Pan American, Kansas, San Jose State, Lynn University and Fordham.
Osborne led Menlo to a program-best 26-4 mark last year and hopes to continue the school's success at the Cal Pac Conference and beyond.
"We know how to compete against great teams," she said. "It's a mental thing."