The NAU women’s basketball team called a timeout early in the second quarter of its game against the University of Idaho Vandals, Feb. 20. During that time, the bench huddled around the players who just came off the court, while the coaches drew up a game plan in their own adjacent huddle.
Before head coach Loree Payne talked to the team, there was a loud voice coming from the players’ huddle, shouting adjustments and motivational phrases as if Payne had been huddled with her team from the start. Upon closer look, it wasn't a coach — it was junior guard Caitlin Malvar, doing what she does best.
“I’ll be very honest and say that [Malvar] is one of, if not, the best point guards in our conference,” Payne said. “It’s not just because of what she can do on the court either. It’s what she does when she’s off the court that makes her the best.”
When Payne arrived in 2017 from the University of Puget Sound, a Division III school in Tacoma, Washington, along came Malvar, a player with a loud personality and commanding court presence. Malvar and Payne have had a close relationship, one that shook the very foundation of the NAU women’s basketball program.
Malvar came with Payne in an opportunity to take her talent to the Division I level. It meant leaving behind a successful program that she was becoming an integral part of. It also meant she would sit out for an entire year, as per NCAA transfer rules. Nevertheless, she made the move to be with the coach she had built a trust with during her time at Puget Sound.
In Malvar's freshman season at Puget Sound, the Loggers finished with a 26-3 record. She played a good amount of minutes and proved to be an effective player and a leader on the court.
Malvar and Payne have a lasting relationship that spanned before their time together as player and coach. Malvar’s mother played alongside Payne at the University of Washington, a relationship that inspired Malvar to go to Puget Sound.
The two arrived at a program that had not seen a lot of success in recent history. In the 2016 season before Payne’s arrival, the NAU women’s basketball team finished with a 9-21 record, which was three more wins than the 6-24 season in 2015. Since Payne and Malvar arrived, they have helped turn the Lumberjacks' fortunes around significantly.
With a year of Division I exposure, but no playing time, Malvar hit the ground running as soon as she stepped on the court. Using a season on the bench to learn the ins and outs of Division I basketball, Malvar’s transition was seamless.
Malvar’s first season in 2018 ended with a 13-18 record. It was the first season with more than 10 wins for any Lumberjack women’s basketball team in over three seasons. Malvar was on the court for the majority of the 2018 season, averaging the second-most minutes on the team and leading it with 102 assists. The writing was on the wall — Malvar and success went hand in hand.
Malvar's vocal leadership and court presence are two traits she has brought to the Lumberjacks.
“As a point guard, you need them to be the loudest on the court,” Payne said. “They need to know what they’re in and what everyone else is doing and take on a lot of responsibility. For her to carry that load and lead her team to this many victories is just huge.”
In the Feb. 20 matchup against the Vandals, Malvar fouled out of the game in the final minutes. As she exited the court, there was a round of applause; It was one of the few times that game Malvar had come off the court, and it was a moving show of gratitude for the effort she gave NAU that night.
"It was a great moment. Everyone in the crowd, including myself, wanted to show her some love," junior Tyler Beach said. "You can see her passion in every game she plays, she leaves it all on the floor and does everything she can to lead the team to a win."
Malvar helped elevate the Lumberjacks to heights not seen since their 13-win season her freshman year. With the 2019-2020 season in the books, Malvar showed that she is capable to lead the team to future success.