It emerged from deep within Mesoamerican culture 3,500 years ago and lies steeped in legends of human sacrifice and morbid sacred rituals. Victorious teams and their fans escaped with their lives, fame and fortune. Defeated teams and their followers were offered up as religious benediction to the gods – a cleansing of the chosen from those less prone to escape this challenge of survival of the fittest.
Basketball, in its slightly more primal form, has existed since the commencement of organized sports. This year, the CSU women's team will take this activity of ancient existence into a whole new era as the Rams strive to defeat their Mountain West Conference rivals and endure some intense non-conference competition.
"We have more weapons – more kids that can go out and lead us in scoring," said head coach Chris Denker. "We have more shooters and versatile positions. I think it bodes better for us in terms of versatility."
Denker returns to the CSU helm with a .603 winning percentage, having guided the Rams to a 38-25 record since he took over in 2002. Last year, he led CSU to a 17-12 record overall.
The CSU roster possesses only one senior but boasts a dynamic blend of experience, returning three starters from last year. Junior guard Vanessa Espinoza led the team in scoring, 3-point efficiency and free throw percentage last year and will be returning as point guard.
"I think this year we're more experienced, by far, and the new people are coming along quicker than anybody we've had before," said Espinoza of this year's team. "Another year of maturity is making us play better as a team."
The Rams also return junior forward Melissa Dennett, who closely followed Espinoza as the second leading scorer on the team. Dennett led the team with 21 points in the exhibition season opener against Western State and will be an intimidating offensive threat.
Junior forward Lindsey Thomas rounds out the list of returning starters and was the third-leading scorer last year for CSU. She also previously led the team in shooting efficiency and rebounds.
"Everything is just better this year. We're gelling together and communicating better," Thomas said about the team's efforts so far.
Joining these experienced ballers, the Rams also bring revitalized defense and flexibility to the court this year with the addition of two freshmen and three transfer students to the roster.
"Our ability to shoot the three, with more kids who can do it, is going to take some pressure off our posts," Denker said. "I think we're a little better defensively right now than where we were last year, through the work and experience of our players."
These attributes will be focused on winning the Mountain West Conference Tournament this year. CSU will focus on avenging losses to tough competition including Utah and Wyoming, who swept the Rams in conference play last year.
Although the Rams will be facing this intense opposition in their MWC rivals, they are keeping the big picture in perspective as well. Thomas defined the team's most paramount conquest as making it to the NCAA Tournament.
"The last two years we were right on the bubble," Thomas said.
Hunger for this ultimate goal is evident in the effort the team is putting forth in preparation for the eminent season. The team practices three hours daily, aside from meeting times, and practices are intense.
Although the evolution of the past generations has promoted a less macabre testament to physical athleticism and aggression release, a competitive fire is still alive and evident within the confines of Moby Arena. Human sacrifice may no longer be a tangible spectacle, but the self-sacrifice these players exude to make this team a success should be entertaining to watch this season.
A fierce schedule boasting some big names, including defending national champions Connecticut, Notre Dame and Montana, promises to provide the Rams a definite challenge.
"UCONN is going to be big," Denker said. "We are hoping that it sells out."
The Rams will face off against San Francisco for their season opener at 8 p.m. Friday at Moby Arena.
Breakout box: Look in Friday's Collegian for a preview of the San Francisco game.