Personnel a plus in Eagles’ chase for Big Sky championship
Eastern Washington women’s basketball head coach Wendy Schuller is not much moved by the vote of confidence bestowed upon her team by both Big Sky Conference coaches and media who said her Eagles are the team to beat in their respective pre-season polls.
That’s because last year they both really got it pretty much all wrong, picking Eastern to finish eighth, when in the end they nearly won the conference title.
Ultimately finishing third, Schuller’s team lost an excruciating overtime game in the Big Sky semifinals, 70-64 to Northern Colorado and then fell 65-60 in two OT’s to Washington in the opening round of the WNIT.
“I approach it with the same mindset I’ve always had, being that it doesn’t matter where you start, it matters where you finish,” Schuller said. “Sometimes it’s something you get nervous about and worry about but I don’t with this team because it’s a pretty motivated group, and it’s a group that works hard.”
And they are talented, too.
Notable among a group of four returning starters is junior guard Lexie Nelson, who led the team with an average of 14 points per game en route to earning First Team All-Big Sky honors. Sophomore guard Hayley Hodgins collected Eastern's first Big Sky Freshman of the Year award in 20 seasons.
Other key returners are senior forward Aubrey Ashenfelter, junior point guard Kylie Huerta, senior center Laura Hughes and junior Melissa Williams, EWU's top returning rebounder.
"It's great having so many returning players," Schuller said. "It certainly makes us look a little bit smarter every day in practice.”
Hodgins led Eastern, and ranked third in the Big Sky, in 3-point percentage, connecting on nearly 40 percent of her shots from long range.
"Hayley has picked up where she left off, playing with a lot of confidence,” Schuller said.
A battle for minutes will take place in the post, with both Hughes and Williams pushing for the starting spot. "That will be an interesting battle to keep an eye on," Schuller said.
“Melissa just keeps getting better and better,” Schuller said. “She's someone that plays so hard all the time and is willing to do anything you ask her to do. Those two can bring great things to the table for us."
The group of Big Sky battle-hardened veterans will need help to survive the weekly tussles in a 20-game conference schedule, plus a rigorous preseason.
That should come from freshman guard Jade Redmon, from Mead High School in Spokane and Tacoma native Bethany Montgomery at the wing. Freshman center Marly Anderson is a skilled post who can score in multiple ways, from outside or with her back to the basket.
"We're very excited about our freshmen," Schuller said.
Getting back to her mantra, "Our number one goal is to go to the NCAA tournament," Schuller said. "As a coaching staff, I know our ultimate goal, however, is that every single time we step on the floor, we get better. I don't want us playing our best basketball in November. I want us playing our best basketball in March."
Paul Delaney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.