November 1, 2012

New Season Brings New Identity for Eastern Washington Women’s Basketball

Note: The 2012-13 EWU women’s basketball season opens this Sunday (Nov. 4) with an exhibition game against Carroll College at 1 p.m. at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash. Carroll College (Helena, Mont.) is a member of the NAIA and competes in the Frontier Conference. The Fighting Saints finished the 2011-12 season with a 13-16 overall record. Heading into the 2012-13 season, they received 18 votes for the NAIA Coaches’ Top 25 Poll. The women’s game will be followed by a men’s basketball exhibition game between Eastern and Concordia (Ore.) at approximately 3:30 p.m. Both games are FREE and open to the public.

With the loss of a Big Sky MVP and prolific point guard, Eagles prepare to adopt new roles and responsibilities in 2012-13

When the Eastern Washington University women’s basketball team takes to the floor for the 2012-13 campaign, it will have a very different look. And with new roles for the returners, plus the addition of six freshmen, the team will change even more throughout the course of the season.

The Eagles return three starters and six other letterwinners from its 2011-12 squad that finished 16-14 overall and 10-6 in Big Sky play, which marked the second-best finish for an Eagle squad in more than two decades in the league. But despite the experience that will be back, Eastern must prepare for a major adjustment after losing two of the most influential players to ever suit up for the red and white.

At the end of the 2011-12 season, Eastern said goodbye to the 2012 Big Sky MVP and two-time unanimous All-Big Sky First-Team selection Brianne Ryan, who was also tabbed as the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year in 2010. The Eagles also lost All-Big Sky Second-Team honoree Chene Cooper, who ranked among the top six point guards in the nation for assists and top 25 in steals.

Averaging a combined 30.5 points in 2011-12, Ryan and Cooper accounted for nearly 50 percent of the Eagle scoring last season, not to mention Ryan’s 5.6 rebounds per game and Cooper’s 6.9 assists.

“We are obviously going to look very different this year, because Coop and Ryan were both outstanding players who really changed the expectation of what Eastern Washington women’s basketball is,” said head coach Wendy Schuller, who enters her 12th year at the helm of the program. “But good coaches adjust to their personnel, and we have a great nucleus of players coming back.”

“Our team chemistry right now is as good as I’ve ever seen it,” added Schuller. “We don’t have any egos or anybody that really cares about individual accolades. We all believe in the cause and I’ve seen a complete team effort every single day in practice.”

With a balanced team comes balanced scoring, which Schuller sees as one of the biggest changes her team will experience this year, but may also be one its greatest strengths.

“A year ago, we scored a lot on individual efforts and one-on-one type action,” explained Schuller. “This year, we are going to have to score more together, which is actually one of the things that made us great the year we won the conference title (2009-10). There wasn’t just one or two players who the defenses can say, ‘If we stop her, we stop them.’ This is going to be a team that on any given night, several different players can lead us in scoring.”

More than Ever, Eastern Will Rely on Experienced Post Players

Without Coop and Ryan running the show on the perimeter, Eastern’s strength shifts to its interior game, with senior Carrie Ojeda and sophomore Melissa Williams taking charge.

“I think our post players are as talented as any group in the Big Sky,” said Schuller. “And we are definitely going to rely on them to be scorers more than we did a year ago.”

Ojeda returns as the most experienced player on the court, having started 55 of 60 games over the last two seasons. Ojeda was the third-leading scorer for the Eagles in 2011-12, averaging 10.2 points per game on a team-leading 46.1 field goal percentage. She was the leading shot blocker in the Big Sky with 1.7 blocks per game, and also ranked among the top 12 in rebounding (6.9/game) and steals (1.8/game).

“Carrie had a really nice junior year for us, but we expect her to step it up another notch,” said Schuller. “We need her to be more of a threat, which I know she has the ability to do. With our perimeter players scoring as much as they did last year, our posts did not get the touches they might normally get. But that should change this year. We need to make sure to get her the ball in opportunistic situations.”

In addition to Ojeda, sophomore forward Melissa Williams also returns after starting all 30 games last season. Williams was in fact one of only two freshmen in the league to start every single contest of the 2011-12 campaign. Although the Camas, Wash., native has already played a lot of minutes, her role this year will be quite different than in her rookie season, when she averaged 4.6 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game.

“Melissa started every game for us last year, but we did not rely on her to get us a lot of points,” said Schuller. “This year, we are going to need her to contribute 12 to 14 a night. She has never been in that situation where she needs to score, but Melissa is definitely capable. She should have more confidence this year, and we expect her to be a leader out there.”

Two other players who will add depth to the front court are junior center Laura Hughes and sophomore forward Morganne Comstock.

Having been on the court for two years already, Hughes has an advantage over other players in terms of minutes logged. The 6-2 center averaged 9.1 minutes as a true freshman and 15.6 during her sophomore campaign. Coming off the bench, she contributed 5.4 points and 3.6 rebounds.

“Laura is as athletic of a big as I have ever seen,” said Schuller. “When she decides to go as hard and fast as she can, I don’t know if there is another post out there that can run and move bodies like she can. But what we need from Laura is consistency. Nothing is worse for a coach than having to wonder which personality is going to show up on the floor. We need Laura to bring the same effort and intensity game in and game out. If she can do that, she will have an opportunity to be a big time post player for us.”

Unlike Hughes, Comstock enters the 2012-13 season with just 16 minutes on the floor for EWU. The sophomore from Kent, Wash., battled with a hip injury her first two years in the program, but is finally healthy and ready to make a name.

“Morganne is an interesting case because this is actually her third year in the program,” said Schuller. "She redshirted as a freshman and then coming off hip surgery last year, she was never physically where she needed to be to play significant minutes. “But Morganne stayed here all summer and worked tirelessly with our trainer, Kacey [Hoob], who did a phenomenal job getting Morganne where she needed to be.”

“Probably more than any other player on our team, Morganne has the ability to flat out score,” added Schuller. “She can post up, she can shoot threes, she just has a knack for putting the ball in the basket. We are trying to get her to defend more and go to the glass, but I think she could be a really exciting player.”

Although the possibility of redshirting still exists, freshmen Hanna Mack and Cece Pearl can provide even more talent and depth inside.

Mack is a 6-4 center out of Marist High School in Eugene, Ore., while 5-11 Pearl joins the Eagles from Peoria, Ariz., where she was an All-Arizona Division II First-Team selection after leading her squad to a runner-up finish in the 2012 state championship.

Veteran Wings Must Buy In to New Roles

Like in the post, Eastern has a core group of returning perimeter players as well. But this group of wings will also see their roles change in the new era of Eastern women’s basketball.

Junior Aubrey Ashenfelter returns as the second-most experienced player on the team. She appeared in all 31 games as a true freshman in 2010-11 and started 29 of 30 last year for 1,182 minutes played thus far in her career. But in her first two years, she was a role player for Eastern. Now, as a junior, Ashenfelter will take on a much bigger responsibility.

“Aubrey’s role has to change,” said Schuller. “She has to score. She also has the ability to be that great perimeter defender that we lost in Brianne Ryan. Aubrey is different, but she is a long, smart and talented defender.”

“After spending a certain amount of time in a role, you get used to that,” added Schuller. “But our mission is to get Aubrey to understand we don’t want her to be the player she has been for two years. The expectation is a lot higher in terms of our needs from Aubrey, and from what we’ve seen already in practice, we think she has bought in.”

Fellow junior Chenise Pakootas will also be an important player for the Eagles in terms of scoring. Pakootas averaged 5.8 points per game in 2011-12, and was the most efficient 3-point shooter in the Big Sky Conference. She made 40 percent of her long-range shots during her sophomore campaign.

“Again, having lost a lot of perimeter scoring, Chenise is another player that will need to step up,” said Schuller. “She needs to emerge from not having to be productive every single night into a role where she does score every time she’s on the floor. She is a smart basketball player, and we are going to look for her to provide us some lift at that position.”

In addition to her experienced wings, Schuller is also expecting redshirt-freshman Hayley Hodgins to make an impact in the upcoming season.

“It is pretty exciting to watch Hayley every day in practice, because it’s like ‘wow, that’s a freshman,’” said Schuller.  “Hayley shoots the ball well, and is another player that gives us length defensively. She has a great understanding of the game and knows how to score. It will be fun to watch her as she grows throughout this season.”

Eastern Prepares to Play with ‘Two-Headed’ Point Guard

After two years of watching Cooper orchestrate the offense for EWU, the Eagles will use the combined efforts of two young players to run the point in 2012-13. Although inexperienced in terms of actual minutes on the floor, Schuller will look to sophomores Kylie Huerta and Lexie Nelson to lead Eastern’s back court.

Huerta appeared in 29 of 30 games as a freshman, but only averaged 7.6 minutes per game. A transfer from Montana, Nelson has never suited up in an Eastern jersey. But with the Lady Griz in 2010-11, she played in 32 of 33 games, including three Big Sky Conference Tournament games, which were all victories, as the Lady Griz won the title and advanced to the NCAA Championship for the 24th time in program history.

Different than Coop in their style of play, these two players each provide something special that Schuller believes will make the transition seamless.

“Kylie is a great passer,” said Schuller. “At this point in her career, she is probably a better passer than Coop was at the same point in hers. Coop was a better scorer and could get by anybody, but Kylie is a phenomenal passer. Her court vision is tremendous. She is going to be player who makes everyone around her better because of her ability to see the floor.”

In her 220 minutes as a rookie, Huerta notched 43 points and 30 assists for EWU. The 5-1 point guard came to Eastern after a successful four-year career at Kentwood High School - the same school that produced Gonzaga legend and current WNBA star Courtney Vandersloot, as well as Nebraska four-year starter Lindsey Moore, who is a 2013 preseason Wade List and Naismith Trophy candidate. Kentwood is also the alma-mater of EWU men’s basketball great, Rodney Stuckey.

“Lexie gives us more of a scoring point guard, which is a nice type of player to put on the floor,” said Schuller. “She handles it well and has a little bit more size than Kylie, so I think the combination of the two will give us a great dimension at that position. Lexie can also swing at the wing because she has the mindset of a scorer, so you may see them on the court together a lot of the time.”

Although she has never played a game in an Eastern uniform, Nelson has already made quite an impression among teammates and coaches.

“Lexie is as good of a ‘leader by example’ that you are ever going to see,” said Schuller. “Every single thing we do in practice, she goes as hard as she can, and she puts in the extra time as well. It’s great for our team to see that.”

Eastern Still Looking for Vocal Leader

In light of these new roles and responsibilities, Eastern is still searching for that vocal leader on the court who will step up in trying times.

“If there was anything that would be of slight concern right now, it’s finding that person who is going to really get after it, and want the ball and bleed for it,” said Schuller. “I am still waiting to see who steps up to that role. We are 19 practices in, and I have seen glimpses of it from different players, but we have not seen that one person who is going to compete like crazy, and want to kick your butt every single day.”

“We lost two players who did do that, and that was part of what made them special,” added Schuller. “Everybody sat back and let them do that, but now, it’s somebody else’s turn. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be one person -- we are actually expecting to see more leadership by committee in a lot of ways.”

By nature of their position, the expectation is there for Huerta and Nelson, but as sophomores with limited minutes, that may be a tall task. A senior and two-year starter, Ojeda seems like a natural fit, but according to Schuller, Williams, Ashenfelter and Pakootas all have the potential to also satisfy such a need.

Eagles Enter Big Sky Season as a Familiar Underdog

Heading into the 2012-13 season, both the coaches and media selected Eastern Washington to finish eighth in the first year of the newly expanded Big Sky Conference - a ranking that would leave Eastern just out of the postseason tournament.

With the conference now expanded to 11 schools, the Big Sky Championship will include seven teams rather than six as it had for the previous 17 years.

But Eastern is certainly familiar with a preseason ranking that has it out of the tournament field - and familiar with proving it wrong. Prior to the 2009-10 season, the Eagles were selected seventh by both the coaches and media. That year, EWU went on to win the school’s first-ever Big Sky regular-season title after an impressive 12-4 run in conference. Last season, the Eagles were picked seventh again, and ended up finishing third overall with a 10-6 mark.

“I don’t blame the coaches for picking us eighth,” said Schuller. “I mean, in a way, I probably know what Idaho State is going to look like this season more than I know what my own team is going to look like. With so many Big Sky teams having so many players back, why would anyone put faith in us as group not knowing what we are this season? But that’s okay. I like being the underdog. I like the fact that we should have a little chip, because we can use that to get better every single night.”

In terms of Big Sky tournament teams from a year ago, Eastern Washington definitely lost the most with the departure of the league’s leading scorer and leading point guard. In fact, it could be argued EWU lost the most of any team in the league altogether.

Defending regular-season and tournament champion Idaho State returns four of its five starters from a year ago, including two All-Big Sky and All-Tournament team honorees. The Bengals are the clear favorite heading into the 2012-13 season, receiving eight first-place votes from both the coaches and media.

Northern Colorado, which also returns four of five starters from its 2011-12 squad, was tabbed second - right where it ended last season with an 11-5 record. Montana was picked third, followed by Montana State in fourth and Portland State in fifth, according to the coaches.

The always dangerous Lady Griz become even more of a threat this year, as they welcome back all five starters from 2011-12. The Bobcats and Vikings have 80 percent of their starting core back, as does Sacramento State - the team that knocked EWU out of the playoffs a year ago. The Hornets were selected seventh by the coaches and sixth by the media.

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