Aug. 14, 2006
The formula may be different in the 2006-07 season for the Eastern Washington University women's basketball team, but the main element is the same.
Relying upon an experienced group of guards after losing a talented corp of post players, the goal for the Eagles is always the same. Although the Eagles have advanced to the Big Sky Conference Tournament the past six seasons, Eastern is still trying to win its first league title since 1987.
"We have to outwork everyone and continue to get better throughout the season," said Eagle head coach Wendy Schuller, who has been at the helm of the last five tourney appearances, including three semifinal games. "If we do so, I think we are talented enough to earn a shot at a Big Sky championship."
Seven returning letter winners are back, and five of them are guards. Among the six lost letter winners were five post players all standing 6-foot-1 or taller.
"We have always been a team that has liked to go inside," said Schuller. "We'll continue to try to get the ball inside a lot, but we'd also like to change the way we play a little bit. We've recruited players with the athleticism to allow us to play a more up tempo brand of basketball on both ends."
"I expect that we'll be a team that improves constantly and has a chance to be very solid," she continued. "We'll be young in many aspects but our goal will be to play smart and let no one outwork us. Our five upperclassmen will lead and our youngsters will follow enthusiastically. We are going to be a solid defensive team and would like to create offensive opportunities with our defense."
The returning guards and wings include Joanna Chadd, Leah Gonnella, Phynique Allen, Ashley Knight and Brittany Osborn. Gonnella and Osborn are listed as returning starters, as well a 6-2 post Sydney Benson.
"We're really excited about our guards and what they will bring to the team this year," said Schuller. "I think that we are going to be as experienced and as talented at the guard spots as we have ever been at Eastern. I am looking for our point guards and wings to carry a lot of the load for us."
Among the players lost were previous All-Big Sky Conference players Felice Moore and Julie Page. Also lost were Jamie Chicane and Raelynn Chaffee as that quartet combined for nearly 30 points and 20 rebounds per game.
"It hurts to lose Felice, Julie, Raelynn, and Jamie," said Schuller. "Those are all players that are six-foot and up and they were all very big contributors in their own way to us. I think that having the guard play back that we do will be very critical and we will be able to transfer a lot of responsibility to them."
Eagles Expect Balance Once Again . . .
Last year, no Eagle players averaged in double figures in scoring, but 11 players averaged at least 11 minutes. A total of 11 players started games last year, including eight with at least eight starts. Schuller doesn't expect that balance to change this year.
"We are not a team that has one or two players that you can say are going to be our main offensive threats," she said. "We have a lot of players that are capable of putting up 15 or 20 on any night and hopefully our style will be conducive to that happening."
Chadd returns for her senior season after earning Big Sky Co-Defensive MVP honors a year ago. The 2003 graduate of Philomath, Ore., High School was effective off the bench, averaging 9.1 points, 2.3 assists and nearly one steal per game as a point guard, outside shooting threat and defensive stopper. She was the team's top three-point shooter, making 48-of-139 for 34.5 percent.
"Jo is a player that has played a lot since her freshman year," praised Schuller. "She is going to be a four-year player and probably the hardest working player I have ever had. Getting co-defensive player of the year last year was just a testament to her hard work. Jo is not the tallest player and she is not the quickest player, but she might be the strongest and everything she gets is from the work she puts in. Jo is a tremendous offensive threat and we know we can count on her to be a great defender every night."
Gonnella is a 2002 graduate of Mead High School in Spokane, Wash., and began her career at the University of Toledo in Ohio. But the point guard returned home, and last year averaged 5.6 points and 2.8 assists while making 31 three-pointers.
Osborn has had two solid years as a wing for the Eagles, and last season averaged 6.6 points, 2.5 rebounds and just over one steal per game.
"Brittney Osborn had a really nice year for us last year as well and is coming off of a spring knee surgery," said Schuller. "Brittney has the uncanny ability to find ways to score and we expect her to pick up where she left off last year."
Allen averaged 3.6 points, 2.3 assists and 1.1 steals per game as a freshman, and Knight chipped in 3.2 points per game as a sophomore.
"Phynique really came on and got better as the year went on," said Schuller. "She had a phenomenal spring in terms of improving her jump shot and other aspects of the game. I really expect her to have a breakout season."
"Ashley Knight is in the best shape she has been in her career and is ready to take her game to the next level," she added. "A.K. has a lot of ability and I think is somebody that we can expect to step up for us."
Among the newcomers at guard is 2005-06 redshirt Katy Baker, who is a graduate of Spokane's Lewis & Clark High School before signing with Southern Utah. High school recruits include Jessica Huntington (East Valley High School in Yakima, Wash.), Amanda Murdoch (Bozeman, Mont., High School) and 6-1 Danielle Greaby (Mariner High School in Everett, Wash.).
"Katy Baker is a transfer who redshirted last season," said Schuller. "She is really long and athletic and has a great all around game. She also brings a lot of spirit and enthusiasm to our team."
Inside, Benson also had an outstanding freshman season and averaged 2.4 points and 3.7 rebounds per game. She will be joined inside by 6-5 Tara Holgate, who redshirted last season as a freshman after coming to EWU from Snohomish County Christian High School in Everett, Wash.
"In the paint, Sydney Benson really came on for us as the year went on and we expect that she is going to be a presence for us inside," said Schuller. "Tara Holgate redshirted last year and is just a freshman, but has the ability to help us immediately."
Newcomers at the post positions include 5-11 Kari Darnell and 6-2 Nicole Scott. Darnell played last season at Big Bend Community College after playing high school basketball at nearby Lakeland High School in Rathdrum, Idaho. Scott is a high school recruit from Carson City, Nev.
"Kari Darnell gives us some experience inside and we are also excited about incoming freshmen Nicole Scott, who is a physical player like Julie and Felice," said Schuller. "We are going to be very young inside and it will be a learning process. However, we feel good on the perimeter knowing most of our guards have had the ball in their hands a lot in their careers and understand how we want to play."
Gaining experience and confidence early will be a big key to the season . . .
Making the growing process challenging for the inexperienced newcomers will be a non-conference schedule that includes Pacific 10 Conference opponents Washington and Washington State, as well as regional rivals Gonzaga, Portland and Idaho. Eastern will also play at the University of Texas-San Antonio Tournament in November as EWU prepares for Big Sky Conference play that begins in January.
"Hopefully we can get through our tough pre-season and feel good about ourselves," said Schuller. "A big key early will be to gain experience and confidence with our post players."
"We play a challenging schedule and our conference is going to be great," she continued. "I think the Big Sky doesn't get nearly the recognition it deserves because top to bottom it is a very good league. The league's RPI ranking last season was better then the West Coast and better than the Big West. It is a very solid conference so we know we have our work cut out for us. But we are excited, our incoming class is composed of very skilled young players and I like the core of young ladies we have returning. I think we can compete every night."
Schuller is particularly excited about the opportunity to play Washington at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash., on Nov. 21. The last Pac-10 team to visit EWU was Washington State last year, and the Eagles emerged with a 57-54 victory.
"I think it is great we get a Pac-10 team on our home floor," said Schuller. "Washington State has played us at our place in the past and I think it is good that Washington is doing the same. We look at it as a great opportunity. Washington has almost everybody back off of last year's NCAA tournament team and should be very good and compete in the Pac 10 at a high level. I am much happier to have them on our home court than away, that is for sure."
A year ago, Eastern finished 7-7 in the Big Sky and placed fourth in the regular season. The Eagles were knocked off in the conference tournament by fifth-seeded Weber State, which then knocked off No. 1 seed Idaho State. Northern Arizona became the first-ever No. 3 seed to win the tourney title and garnered the league's automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.
"Idaho State has two of the top players in the league that were both sophomores last year," said Schuller of this year's league race. "They won the league with those players, so we expect they will be pretty good. Weber State really played well and came on towards the end of the season and they have almost everybody back. Montana returns most of their team and they also had a great season. NAU and ourselves probably lost the most, but I know both of us feel really good about who we have coming back."
"It is going to be a dogfight and no one will be able to take a night off," she added. "Portland State and Sacramento State will be better and Montana State and Northern Colorado will both be improved. It is going to be an exciting season."