Deonta Woodard knew he needed to be stronger.
At 6-foot-6 and 200 pounds, Woodard is built more like a swingman or tall guard. His quickness and athleticism would have allowed him to thrive at either position, but on an undersized Merced College basketball team, the sophomore’s length was required in the post.
Often giving away 30 to 40 pounds and a couple of inches, Woodard did his best to battle with natural big men down low as a freshman. With many of those encounters resulting in Woodard getting pushed around, he entered the offseason determined to put up a better fight.
“I knew we were going to be undersized again this year, so I was in the weight room all the time trying to get stronger,” he said. “Last year, I got pushed off of the block while trying to post up or just bullied in the paint on defense. This year, I was the one knocking guys around.
“I was able to box out better. It made defense easier, and I drew a lot more and-ones, because I could fight through the contact.”
Woodard’s hard work was evident on the court, as he led the Blue Devils with 18.5 points per game to go with 8.1 rebounds. He helped lead Merced to its first NorCal Regional berth in 10 years and was named the Central Valley Conference’s co-MVP with Fresno City’s Cole Morgan.
“I’m not really a stats guy,” Woodard said. “My focus has always been to just go out and play hard, but I was surprised by some of the numbers I put up. I was even more surprised to be named MVP.
“It shows that all the hard work I put in during the offseason really paid off. I’m a lot more confident now, too. When you go up against the San Francisco Citys and Yubas and do well against guys with Division I and II scholarships, you know you can succeed at the next level.”
Woodard was among six conference honorees for the Blue Devils.
Bill Russell was named Coach of the Year after leading the program to its first playoff appearance since the 2005-06 season and a second-place finish in the conference. Big man Joshua Willingham earned Freshman of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors after averaging 16.6 points, 10.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.5 blocks.
Woodard and Willingham were named to the CVC first team, and sophomore guard Anthony Nolen (18.0 points) received an honorable mention. Byron Brummel and Jose Gonzalez made the CVC All-Defense team.
The Merced women’s team received three CVC nods led by guard Salihah Bey earning first-team honors. The freshman paced the Lady Devils with 16.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 2.0 steals per game.
Sophomores Samantha James (12.5 points, 7.4 rebounds) and Christina Lotulelei (7.0 points, 5.2 rebounds) were selected to the second team.
Belvin’s future bright – The UC Merced women’s basketball team is no stranger to major awards during its current three-year run of California Pacific Conference dominance.
The Cal Pac recognized four Bobcats, including Freshman of the Year Mia Belvin. The guard from Long Beach led Merced with 11.8 points per game and set a school season record with 80 steals in 28 games.
Reigning All-American Courtney Danna. joined Belvin on the first team. The senior guard averaged 10.6 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.8 assists, setting a school season record with 120 assists.
Center Brittany Martinez and guard Christina Castro received honorable mention.
Two UC Merced men’s players were recognized. Sophomore forward Matt Laflin assumed much of the leadership role and averaged 11.8 points and 5.6 rebounds to lock up his place on the first team. Freshman guard Cole Taira (12.3 points, 3.7 assists) was named to the second team.
Dancing again – The UC Merced women are making their third trip to Sioux City, Iowa, in as many years for the NAIA Division II Championship Tournament.
The Bobcats (17-11) have a tough test, facing the No. 1 seed for the third straight year. Merced received the No. 8 seed in the Naismith Bracket and will face St. Francis of Illinois (31-1) in the opening round of the 32-team tournament at 3:15 p.m. Wednesday. The game can be streamed at www.naianetwork.com.