- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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The days got heady when Cal returned from New Orleans last spring.
Going to your first Final Four has its perks, as the Bears found out almost immediately. There was the greeting at the airport and on campus following their return to Berkeley. The people who stopped the coaches and the players to say congratulations and share how they'd watched the national semifinal game on television.
The quick turnaround to accompany star senior Layshia Clarendon to the WNBA draft in Connecticut.
The invitations to throw out the first pitch, first for the Oakland A's and then for the San Francisco Giants.
The speaking engagements for coach Lindsay Gottlieb, from people who wanted to hear about her views on team dynamic and acceptance and how the personality of this Cal team led to its success.
"It's been unbelievable," Gottlieb said. "We didn't get any rest when we got back, and I still wouldn't trade it for anything. I think the thing that surprised me the most was getting asked to speak about our story."
But when Gottlieb was done speaking about that team's story, she moved quickly to the beginning of a new one. And it started with a trip to China.
The Bears were eligible to take a foreign trip before last season, but the young coach deferred that opportunity until this past summer.
"At the time, I wanted my first priority to be getting my hands in on this team, not fundraising for a foreign trip," Gottlieb said. "I wanted our players to be fresh in February and I didn't think we needed a bonding trip. And contrast that with this year and it was perfect timing."
A year later, the Bears were ready. With the departure of four stalwart seniors, Cal was looking for new leadership, cohesion and an opportunity to incorporate the talented class of four freshmen. The trip proved an ideal opportunity.
"We had 10 practices and three games," Gottlieb said. "It was very valuable. The reasons to go were much more suited to this team."
The Bears won all three games, setting the table for what they hope is a fabulous follow-up to 2012-13's history-making season, which included a school-record 32 wins, a share of the conference title and an unprecedented NCAA run.
Finishing in the Final Four undoubtedly and undeniably raised the bar in Berkeley.
"Before last season, we were building to become elite," junior forward Reshanda Gray said. "And now that we are at that elite level, it's all about maintaining it. But we are also keeping our identity."
Gray, who won gold with USA Basketball in the World University Games this summer, and fellow junior Brittany Boyd, the Bears' dynamic point guard, are the players who will help connect Cal's identity with a group of newcomers. Both played key roles in last season's success, but will take leading roles this season as the most experienced players on the floor.
Boyd, in particular, realizes she must "fill the shoes" left empty by Clarendon's departure.
"I'm still learning how to do it, but I believe I'm capable of it," Boyd said. "I guess if you could say if the ball needs to be in my hands at the end or to make a big shot, I'm going to find the best option for my teammate or myself. But I wouldn't say leave it all to me."
Boyd and Gray will be complemented by the 3-point shooting of senior Mikayla Lyles and the eventual return of uber-athletic forward Gennifer Brandon, who had offseason surgery to repair a stress fracture in her lower leg and is still recovering. She should be ready to play in a few weeks.
If the Final Four changed Cal's expectations, it has altered little else.
"The Final Four isn't going to be a part of our verbiage every day," Gottlieb said. "We didn't talk about it last year, either. We talked about playing to an elite level, to the highest level, to compete with Notre Dame and Stanford and Connecticut. So in my mind, our day-to-day process isn't going to change at all."
Despite finishing last season's Pac-12 regular season with a co-championship with Stanford, the Bears are again picked to finish second behind the Cardinal.
But the chip on the shoulder that used to be there for Cal seems to have faded away.
"I think people realized Stanford isn't the only great team in the Pac-12," Gray said. "We have to just continue to strive to be great."
The Bears now have a new story to write, one that Gottlieb can only hope to be sharing next spring.
"Last year was incredible, something that none of us will ever forget," Gottlieb said. "But there's no part of me that wants a do-over or to press replay. …
"What happened last year, we can use it, but we don't want to recreate it. I want to use the lessons of last year to make us better, but I want this team to understand that they have a chance to create their own story."
13dBonnie D. Ford