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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Balleweg

Camy Aguinaldo Found her Happy Place at Pacific U.

Camy Aguinaldo was never supposed to play at Pacific University.

She was never supposed to reach 1,500 points in a Boxer uniform or be on track to become their all-time leading scorer.

Far from it, actually.

Before she became a key piece in the turnaround of Pacific’s women’s basketball program, she was a feared rival.

Aguinaldo began her college basketball career in the Northwest Conference at Whitworth University, which plays alongside Pacific.

Aguinaldo started playing basketball when she was 4-years old. Born in Oahu, Hawaii, she joined the 808 basketball club where her love and skill for the game grew. She fit right into the Hawaii style of play, racing from end to end, always looking for the quick basket. After a decorated career at Iolani High School, Aguinaldo was highly recruited. She decided on Whitworth, a small Division III school in basketball-obsessed Spokane, Washington.

“I chose DIII because of the education aspect,” Aguinaldo said. “I wanted to focus more on education than basketball.”

The 5-3 guard found immediate success at Whitworth, starting all 25 games and averaging 15 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists. She was named NWC Freshman of the Year and NWC Second Team All-Conference. With her immediate impact, it seemed as though Aguinaldo would be a foundational player for Whitworth’s team going forward. Then, in the off-season, head coach Helen Higgs, the winningest coach in Whitworth’s women’s basketball, retired after 24 seasons.

Assistant coach Alecia Parker also moved on, becoming the head coach of Pacific. Even though Aguinaldo had proven herself in the conference, the change was difficult.

“At Whitworth, [the new game plan] was to slow things down, get it into the post and let the post work,” she said. “That transition was really hard for me because I am the type of player who likes to push to get an easy bucket and easy steal.”

Without two coaches who heavily impacted her decision to come to Whitworth and playing a style she was not accustomed to, Aguinaldo was lost.

“I lost the love of basketball,” she said. “I ended up quitting sophomore year.”

She was leaving behind the game she had dedicated her life to, one which brought her countless opportunities. Aguinaldo was content with her decision to leave basketball behind, spending the 2019 summer doing anything but playing.

“Over the summer, I didn't get into the gym and then it hit me,” Aguinaldo said. “I was not ready to give this up. My story isn’t done here.”

It was Parker — the head coach at Pacific and former Whitworth assistant — who brought Aguinaldo back to the game.

“I knew for Camy it really wasn’t that she didn’t love basketball anymore,” Parker said. “She just didn't love basketball where she was at.”

The strong bond Aguinaldo and Parker had built at Whitworth was a massive reason for Aguinaldo’s journey back to basketball.

“A lot of it was the relationship we built,” Aguinaldo said. “She wanted me to continue this passion I had and she wanted to give me that opportunity.”

Besides the close relationship with Parker, Pacific also has a high Hawaii-student population. Of the 3,000 students who attend the school, 15% are from Hawaii.

After a few conversations between the two that summer, Aguinaldo was all in. She officially transferred to Pacific to continue playing basketball. Parker figured a different environment would bring out a different Aguinaldo and she was right. Aguinaldo led the team with 14.5 points, 3 assists and 3 rebounds a game. Even though it was her first year in the program, Aguinaldo was a natural fit, playing the fast-paced basketball she grew up with in Hawaii.

On top of Aguinaldo, Pacific had seven incoming freshmen.

“It was a perfect time for a transfer because she was able to take leadership right away,” Parker said. “Camy was already aware of the expectations and getting in the gym and working hard, doing all the little things.”

The impact was obvious to her teammates.

“There is a difference when she is on the court and when she is not,” teammate Brilie Kovaloff said. “Playing alongside her, I know I am grateful to have a point guard like her.”

With Aguinaldo leading the team, Pacific had a 11-5 conference record after going 2-14 the year before. And their overall record literally flipped from 8-17 to 17-8.

It was the first time Pacific had qualified for the conference tournament since 2009 and their first time hosting a tournament game since 1996. The gym was packed. Emotions were high, as the winner moved on to the conference final, where they would play for a chance to qualify for the national tournament.

After a slow start, Pacific made a late game surge but fell just short of the win, losing to George Fox 56-47.

“We were all young and none of us experienced that,” Aguinaldo said. “There were lots of nerves because we had never had a packed gym like that.”

Even with the loss, Pacific was on the rise. Led by Aguinaldo, Kovaloff and others, the young squad was one of the best teams in Pacific history after just one season together. The next season would only be greater …until the pandemic hit.

The 2020-21 season was anything but predictable for Aguinaldo and the rest of the team. Due to COVID protocols the team was not allowed to practice inside the basketball gym. Instead, they practiced at the university’s tennis courts as coaches bought the team an outdoor basketball hoop for practice.

The season was just as unorthodox.

Once allowed gym access, the team was only allowed to play Oregon schools within the NWC. On top of this, schools like Willamette and Lewis & Clark canceled their seasons. That meant the team only played George Fox and Linfield in conference play and there would be no conference tournament.

“Mentally, how do you play a game with nothing to look forward to?” Aguinaldo said.

In her final college season, there would be no conference tournament and no way to avenge the team’s loss to George Fox in the conference semis. That off season, Aguinaldo had a choice: Hang up her shoes and walk away from the game after four years or go to graduate school for physical therapy. Or, use her fifth year of eligibility granted by the NCAA to all college athletes due to COVID and play one more season for Pacific.

For Aguinaldo, it was easy. The game was still calling her.

“Once again, my story is not ending here,” she said. “Ever since I transferred, Pacific has been awesome. I love the campus, I love the education that it provides.”

This season went as planned for Aguinaldo. She was a four-time NWC student-athlete of the week, averaging 20 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game. In the conference, she ranked first in points per game and second in assists per game and is No. 20 nationally in scoring.

That was enough for her to earn NWC Player of the Year honors, just the third player in Pacific history to earn the award.

“She has a really high IQ for the game and looking across the conference she is the best point guard,” Kovaloff said. “Playing alongside her, I know I am grateful to have a point guard like her.”

As for the accolades and her success, Aguinaldo gives the answer you might expect: It's about the team.

“This is the best team I have ever played with,” she said. “Seeing how positivity can play into what we are doing on the floor, that helps with the chemistry between everyone.”

Aguinaldo says the love the Boxers have for each other off the court is what helps them on the court. Like, helping Pacific to its first NWC finals appearance since 1996. They lost to No. 6 Whitman of Walla Walla, Washington, but it was about something greater. It was about the revival of a basketball program in the dumps. It was about a player trusting a former coach and being the missing piece. It was about Aguinaldo coming back to the game she was ready to leave behind.

“I am really grateful for everything that has happened,” Aguinaldo said. “I am grateful I got to go to school and play another year of basketball.”

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