SEASON OUTLOOK: With all the Pieces in Place, Eastern Looks to Top Last Year’s Illustrious Season

Reigning Big Sky Champs kick off 2010-11 campaign Sunday with exhibition contest against Simon Fraser

The Eastern Washington University women's basketball team opens its 2010-11 season on Sunday (Nov. 7) with an exhibition game against Simon Fraser at 1:05 p.m. at Reese Court.

The Simon Fraser Clan will provide a good early-season test for the defending Big Sky Champion Eagles. The Clan has captured the Canadian Interuniversity Sport women's basketball title in back-to-back years (2009 and 2010), and five national titles in the past decade. After dropping its second contest of the year last year, Simon Fraser won 30 games in a row to earn an overall record of 32-1. Although it returns only two starters and four letterwinners from that successful 2009-10 squad, the Clan is certainly a team not to be overlooked.

Formerly an NAIA school, the team from Burnaby, B.C. is in the process of becoming an NCAA Division II school in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference. After serving as a provisional affiliate for the 2010-11 school year, the Clan will be an official member in 2012. In addition to the exhibition contest against Simon Fraser, the Eagles will play another member of the GNAC this season when it takes on Saint Martin's on Dec. 11 in Cheney.

After celebrating the most successful year in the past two decades of Eastern Washington women's basketball, the reigning Big Sky champion Eagles are eager to get back on the court.

This season is filled with a great deal of excitement, as head coach Wendy Schuller returns three starters and seven other letterwinners from her 19-12 team that won the school's first-ever Big Sky regular-season title in 2010 and hosted the conference tournament for the first time in school history. Although the fervor of last season still resonates with each player, the 2010-11 squad is looking ahead to one specific goal; an invitation to the big dance.

"Last year wasn't complete for us," expressed Wendy Schuller, who is in her 10th year at the helm of the program. "We want to go to the NCAA tournament. We had a bitter taste in our mouths after the conference tournament last year, and we feel we still have some business to attend to."

The Eagles will rely on their talented group of upperclassmen to lead the team to its ultimate goal in the 2010-11 season, while also enlisting the help of its three returning sophomores and five capable freshmen.

"We have a great dynamic on the team this year," said Schuller. "We have amazing leadership in our juniors and seniors, and also have a really receptive group of underclassmen, who are willing to be led, but also want to step up and contribute."

"After winning the Big Sky title last year, it would be easy for the returners to say, 'Well that was our special thing and you new players weren't a part of it'," added Schuller. "But that has not been the case at all. Our captains and other veterans have done a great job of welcoming the freshmen with open arms and embracing everything they have to offer. All the pieces are in place, we just need to make sure every player buys into her role. If everyone does what they need to do for the betterment of our team, I have no doubt in my mind we will have another successful season."

Besides strong leadership skills, senior class boasts two returning All-Big Sky players…

Headlining the list of leaders in 2010-11 is the reigning Big Sky Most Valuable Player, Julie Piper. As the first women's basketball player in Eastern history to earn such an honor, Piper will once again be an essential part of EWU's success in the upcoming season.

"For us to have another great year, Piper needs to have a great season," said Schuller. "She is a huge difference maker for us. She is a great defender, she can shoot, she can rebound and she puts a lot of pressure on the defense in the way she runs the floor. She has worked her tail off to become the best player she can be, and we fully expect her to have another sensational year."

Piper, who has played in every game for the Eagles since the start of her freshman year, averaged a team-leading 11.8 points per game and 7.5 rebounds per game throughout the 2009-10 campaign, while her output in conference play was even more impressive. She was among the top five rebounders in the BSC with 8.3 boards per game in league-only statistics. Her scoring average of 12.6 points per game was among the top 15 in the Big Sky, while her six double-doubles during the year tied for the second-most in the conference. Piper was a unanimous All-Big Sky first-team selection, and led the Eagles in either scoring or rebounding in 24 of their 31 games last year.

In addition to Piper, the senior class includes three-year letterwinners Kyla Evans and Tatjana Sparavalo. Evans was an All-Big Sky second-team selection last year, as she has proved to be one of the best perimeter shooters in Eastern Washington and Big Sky history.

"Kyla is a shooter than can really extend the defense," said Schuller. "She shot the three extremely well last year, and we need her to do the same kind of work on the perimeter this season. We would like to see her break the all-time three point shooting record for our school."

Evans currently owns the best career three-point field goal percentage in EWU history at .390 (170-436) and the ninth-best in the Big Sky. She is fourth at Eastern in career three pointers, and needs only 26 more to nab the school record outright. As she embarks on the 2010-11 season, Evans can take pride in the fact that she is arguably the best three-point shooter in the entire league, as she is the only active player who has made 150+ treys in her career.

Before she can fully embrace that role, though, Evans will have some obstacles to overcome, as she was sidelined for the final two games of last season due to a nagging back injury.

"Kyla has the ability to leave an amazing legacy at EWU, as long as she can stay healthy for her senior season," explained Schuller. "She has worked extremely hard at rehabilitating her back and those issues she dealt with last year. But, a back injury is often an ongoing thing that never completely goes away. We are just trying to manage it, but we know she has done everything she can to put herself in a position to perform at the highest level possible for us."

Sparavalo returns for her senior season after spending three years as an important player off the bench for EWU. During the 2009-10 campaign, Sparavalo played in 28 of Eastern's 31 contests, averaging 15.5 minutes per game. She had 10 double-digit scoring games, six of which came during conference play. Already a constant in Eastern's rotation, Schuller expects Sparavlo to have her best season yet as an Eagle.

"We think Tatjana is really going to have a break-out year," said Schuller. "She had a few games last year where she showed some things that surprised a lot of people in the conference. She has the ability to score at will in a lot of situations, and can provide instant offense for us."

Sparavalo has played a few different positions over the last couple seasons, but the EWU coaching staff feels her versatility makes her a threat from anywhere on the floor.

"We moved Tatjana from the three to the four last year, even though she is not truly a power forward," said Schuller. "In doing that, she really gave teams some matchup problems. Not only does she know how to put it on the floor and make things happen, but she can shoot the three extremely well, and in our system, our four ends up on the perimeter quite a bit."

Sparavalo was third on the team last year in three pointers made (25) and three-point field goal percentage (.385).

Contributions from talented junior class key in Eastern's quest for another Big Sky title…

As crucial as the three senior leaders will be this season, there are three junior members who will have an equally important role on the team. That is exemplified by Chene Cooper, who will be Eastern's starting point guard for 2010-11.

"A lot of our success this year is going to be based on Chene running the point for us," explained Schuller. "She is going to be key in our ability to win another conference championship."

Cooper averaged 8.7 points per game in 2009-10, and led the team in steals with 1.84 per game. She registered 57 total steals on the year, which was the seventh-best single-season performance in EWU history. Cooper was also the top sophomore in the Big Sky Conference in assists (2.87 per game) and free throw percentage (.782), while her field goal percentage in league-only statistics (.476) was the best for all second-year players.

"Chene shared the point guard duties with Jessica [Huntington] last year, and did a great job of working with and learning from Jess, but now, it is her turn. We're handing her the ball. We need her to play consistently night in and night out, like Jessica did for us for four years."

"Chene is a competitive individual and brings a tough nature to our team that we absolutely love. She worked extremely hard in the offseason and has really come a long way, especially in her ability to shoot the three. She has always had a good first step and can get into the lane, but now people have to respect her from the three point line, making her a serious threat from that position."

Breauna Russell is also expected to have a big season, after experiencing an important year of growth as a sophomore in 2009-10. Russell was one of four returning players who played in all 31 games, averaging 12.2 minutes in each.

"We really saw Breauna come into her own last season in realizing she can have a major impact on our team" said Schuller. "She is one of the best athletes I've ever coached, and can help us tremendously with the amount of pressure she puts on the defense. If we can get her to use her athleticism all the time, we think she will have a great year for us."

Three Eagles earned Big Sky honors last season, two of whom were senior captains Piper and Evans. The third was junior Brianne Ryan, the 2010 Big Sky Conference co-Defensive Player of the Year. Ryan played more minutes than anyone on the team last season, and finished the year in the top 15 in the conference in steals (1.42 per game) and offensive rebounds (1.9 per game). Although her postseason accolades were attributed to her defensive abilities, Ryan was equally as impressive on the offensive end, as she was second on the team behind Piper in total points (282) and field goal percentage (.418).

"Brianne has a big-time motor and can just go and go and go," said Schuller. "She is long and athletic and plays extremely hard. She is a obviously a great defender, and takes a lot of pride in that part of her game. She likes knowing that if there is one person on the opposing team that we need to stop, she gets the assignment."

Ryan was third on the team in rebounding last year, behind Piper and 2010 graduate Nicole Scott. She averaged 4.5 boards per game, with almost half of those coming off the offensive glass.

"One thing we would like to see Ryan really hone this season is her rebounding," added Schuller. "She has an incredible nose for the ball, so we think she is someone who can average six to seven rebounds a game. We want her to get to the glass even more on both ends of the floor."

Sophomores provide depth in the post…

Although the Eagles have veteran players at almost every position, the five is one area that is still a little green due to the departure of four-year letterwinner Nicole Scott. Scott averaged five rebounds, seven points and 1.26 blocked shots per game. She is also fourth in Eastern's record book for career games played, so the experience and know-how of Scott will certainly be missed, but Schuller is more than confident in her two sophomore "centers," Courtney Nolen and Carrie Ojeda.

Nolen is a product of Del Oro High School in Penryn, Calif. She played in 20 games for the Eagles during her freshman campaign before suffering from some concussion issues in the middle of the Big Sky season.

"Courtney was playing really well for us in the early part of the season last year, but then she had some injuries that interrupted her season," said Schuller. "She worked really hard over the summer and came back in great shape. Physically, she looks great, so if we can keep her healthy, we know she can help us a lot inside."

Ojeda, who hails from Tacoma, Wash., will also be competing for minutes in the post. She gained a lot of experience last year, appearing in 29 games for EWU.

"Carrie took a bunch of steps up on the ladder in the offseason in terms of conditioning," said Schuller. "She is probably in the best shape of her life, which is important in our system. We always try to recruit post players that can move. We will rely on Carrie to score with her back to the basket, as well as defend for us inside."

"A year from now, we lose Julie Piper, so we will need some veterans who know what's going on down low, and we expect Courtney and Carrie to be those people."

The third member of the sophomore class is 5-foot-7 guard Jordan Schoening, who averaged 12.9 minutes last season, with just under three points per game. She will be fighting for a position on the perimeter, as she has proved to be a talented three-point shooter.

"Jordan really took advantage of the minutes she received as a freshman last year," applauded Schuller. "She is someone who can do a lot for you simply because of her work ethic. You know when she steps onto the floor, she is going to work hard. We would like Jordan to handle the ball for us a little more this season and really focus on shooting the three consistently. She is very active when she is on the floor, and has the ability to knock down shots, but we need her to be consistent with that day in and day out."

Freshman class of five brings a lot to the table…

The 2010-11 squad will have five new faces on its roster, including three Washington natives and two from the state of Oregon. Although these freshmen will have to compete against nine strong returners for minutes, Schuller is encouraged by what she has seen in early-season practices and hopes to see a few of the first-year players work their way into the rotation.

"We are really excited about the freshman class," expressed Schuller. "We have a great mix. There are a few girls who have a really high basketball IQ because of the prep programs they came from, while some others are still trying to figure things out. But those other players who are still adjusting bring some other things to the table that really makes me want to give them opportunities because I can see their potential down the road."

"We will be tinkering with our lineup probably through the first six to eight games," added Schuller. "I am a big believer in giving people a chance to prove themselves, whether that is in a good way or bad way."

One freshman, though, who has already started to show signs of brilliance is six-foot guard Aubrey Ashenfelter.

"Aubrey has a really good shot at working her way into the lineup as a back-up point guard," said Schuller. "She comes from one of the best club programs on the West Coast, and is a really savvy player. Her height gives us a different look at the point. She isn't going to blow anybody away with her speed, as Cooper would, but she handles the ball really well and makes great passes."

Another promising rookie is Richland, Wash., native Laura Hughes. Hughes is a product of Hanford High School, where she averaged 16 points and 10 rebounds and earned 3A All-State Honors.

"Laura is a strong, raw and very athletic post player," said Schuller. "She has great size and a nice touch around the basket. If we can get her to understand how good she can be, we think she will be a really special player for this program. She does things everyday in workouts that make the rest of the team just go, 'wow.'"

Among the other newcomers is Meaghan Cichoke, a 5-7 guard from Tigard, Ore., Chenise Pakootas, a 5-10 guard from Inchelium, Wash., and Morganne Comstock, a 6-2 forward from Kent, Wash.

Unusual Big Sky schedule may pose early obstacles for defending champs…

Unlike the previous two seasons, the EWU women's basketball squad will have the privilege of opening its 2010-11 slate on friendly and familiar Reese Court. Eastern will face CSU-Fullerton in the season opener on Nov. 12, followed by a matchup with Portland on Nov. 14. The Eagles will then embark on a four-game road swing, which includes a Thanksgiving tournament in Boulder, Colo.

Upon its return to Cheney, Eastern will take on one of its toughest opponents of the year in Gonzaga. The GU women are coming off a spectacular season that saw the team advance to the sweet sixteen of the NCAA Division I tournament, dropping only four contests throughout the 2009-10 regular season. The Bulldogs finished first in the West Coast Conference with an undefeated 14-0 record, while head coach Kelly Graves led his team to a 25-5 overall mark. The showdown with the local rival is scheduled for Dec. 3 at 7 p.m. in Cheney.

"We are really looking forward to that game," said Schuller. "Gonzaga has as skilled of players as anyone, and the confidence they have coming off such an incredible season must be pretty special. We are excited about the challenge because we know GU is one of the premier teams on the West Coast and will be there in the tournament at the end of the season."

Hopefully its arduous pre-conference schedule will adequately prepare Eastern for the 2011 Big Sky season, as this year's conference lineup is a little unusual. The Eagles, who were picked second behind Montana in the preseason coaches and media poll, will play five of their first seven conference games on the road. The squad will not face two of its most anticipated opponents, Montana and Montana State, until the final four games of the season, while the series with Idaho State and Weber State are also separated by only one game.

"We are going to have be road-ready, that's for sure" said Schuller. "We know there are other teams in the conference who have similar challenges on their schedule, but this year's conference lineup is certainly not going to be easy for us."

Eastern will make its Big Sky debut at home on Jan. 8 against defending tournament champion Portland State. The team will then head out for three road games against Sac State, Northern Colorado and Northern Arizona, before returning home for its second contest of the regular-season series against the Hornets.

The Eagles will see every school in the BSC twice before it faces its rivals from the Treasure State. The first of the four contests with Montana and Montana State will occur on Feb. 24 when Eastern travels to Bozeman to try and avenge the loss to the Bobcats that knocked them out of the conference tournament last season. Montana State was selected fourth in both 2010-11 preseason polls.

Eastern will then head to Missoula to face preseason-favorite Montana, which had won five of the last six Big Sky regular-season titles prior to 2010, as well as back-to-back tournament titles. The Grizzlies have advanced to the NCAA tournament 18 times in history.

"Montana deserves a great deal of respect," said Schuller. "You go into their gym and there are banners everywhere. Robin is a tremendous coach and I know his staff has done a great job with this year's recruiting class. They have a strong group of freshmen who are going to be asked to step up and play a lot of minutes, which makes them really scary in the future. There may be times this year when Robin is pulling his hair out a little because they are making freshman mistakes, but we know by the time we face them in conference, they will be playing like Grizzlies."

The 2010-11 Big Sky Conference tournament will take place March 10-12, with the regular-season champion hosting. Last year's tournament participants included Eastern, Montana, Sac State, Idaho State, Portland State and Montana State.

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