As the ball left Stephanie Soares’ hand, The Master’s University’s 6-foot-6 center elected not to watch its trajectory as a bystander from beyond the three-point arc. Instead, she bolted toward the paint, positioning herself to grab a rebound.
But as was the case nearly anytime Soares attempted a shot in the Golden State Athletic Conference tournament championship game earlier this month, the hustle was unnecessary. There would be no rebound.
The ball splashed through the net, marking the third 3-pointer in Soares’ stat line and the final highlight in one of the finest individual performances in program history — both in terms of the game and the season.
Soares finished with 35 points and 22 rebounds in what was a fitting, if not satisfying, end to a year in which she led NAIA Division 1 in blocks and rebounds and finished second in scoring.
On Monday, the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association recognized Soares as its NAIA Player of the Year, making her the first Mustang to ever win the award and leaving the question of just what the sophomore might be capable of in her final two seasons wide open for discussion.
“It sounds crazy, but I truly believe that her best basketball is ahead of her,” said Master’s head coach Dan Waldeck, whose team won a program-record 29 games this season. “I think we are going to see a lot more games in the next two seasons that resemble her previous game in the GSAC Championship.”
Soares set a high bar. She made her first 11 shots and 16 of 19 overall against then-No. 3 Westmont in what became a 76-67 Mustang loss. Master’s was ranked No. 5 in the final NAIA Division 1 poll, earning a No. 2 seed in a national tournament that was ultimately canceled due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19.
Soares might have played as many as five more games should Master’s have made another deep push into the tournament, a possibility that further sets apart her final statistics.
Soares led the country with 24 double-doubles, she broke TMU’s season record for field goals made (257), and she remained on pace to break the NAIA Division 1 record for career blocks (624). Soares has compiled 324 rejections through two seasons.
What’s more, Soares set TMU season records for scoring (20.7 points per game) and rebounding (13.6 rebounds per game) and fell 17 points short of breaking the team record for points in a season.
“I’ve been with the program for 25 years,” said Waldeck, who began his TMU career as an assistant coach. “We’ve been blessed to have extraordinary players year after year, but the kind of season that Stephanie put together is one for the record books.”
Waldeck said he has been even more impressed with who Soares is as a person (“It’s easy to see the basketball greatness and miss the great things God has done in her spirit”) and with her desire to improve.
Soares didn’t rest on last season’s dazzling debut when she was selected as the GSAC’s Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year as a freshman.
She instead set out to improve her defense, ball-handling, shot-making and communication and became the first player ever to sweep the conference’s top two awards in more than one season.
“She is such a competitor and makes others around her better,” Master’s forward Anika Neuman said of Soares. “It’s been so fun to see how hungry she is to improve since last year, and it makes me excited even more for her future. She doesn’t stop at anything and that’s what separates her.”
At one practice this season, as Soares dunked the ball (a feat she hopes to eventually realize in a game), Master’s senior Hannah Ostrom remembers thinking to herself that Soares was by far the most talented player she’d ever been on a team with.
“Where do I begin with Steph?” Ostrom said this week. “It’s pretty rare to play with someone who produced the amazing stat line that she had. Not only is she naturally gifted, but Steph is constantly looking for ways to improve her game. Just look at how she elevated her already impressive game in the offseason between her freshman and sophomore year.”
Like Waldeck, Ostrom believes Soares hasn’t yet reached her potential.
“I am so excited to watch and cheer because I know that this award is only the beginning for Steph,” she said.
Soares said she was devastated to learn the national tournament had been canceled.
“It was extremely disappointing,” she said. “We really had a chance this year, and we knew we were going to make a deep run. We are full of mixed emotions: sad, angry, in shock and disappointed all at the same time.”
But, she has begun to come to grips with it.
“This situation is out of our control,” Soares said, “but we know that God is in control of all things.”
As for what the WBCA Player of the Year award means to her, Soares said it was a reflection of the talented group of players around her.
“It just means that I’m surrounded by an amazing team,” she said. “My teammates are very supportive and they push me to be better every day.”