Eagles make season debut this Sunday (Nov. 6) with exhibition game against Warner Pacific at 1 p.m. on Reese Court
At 17 players deep, the Eastern Washington University women's basketball team begins the 2011-12 season with the biggest roster in head coach Wendy Schuller's 11-year tenure. Those 17 names represent one team that is balanced in both style of play and level of experience.
At the core is a trio of talented seniors who will lead this Eagle squad, as it strives to fulfill its full potential. Among the veteran group are two returning All-Big Sky Conference selections in point guard Chene Cooper and swingman, Brianne Ryan.
"We have a great group of seniors who have already begun to lead this team in the right direction," said Schuller. "There is so much energy and effort at practice, and it all starts at the top. Our seniors are our hardest workers. They compete every single day, and are constantly working to elevate the play of their teammates."
Besides the seniors, the Eagles welcome back six other letterwinners, which include three posts and three feisty guards. According to Schuller, all of these players have enough experience now to be able to make a major impact on the season.
Rounding out the 2011-12 roster are two returning redshirts, one non-lettering squad member and five voracious newcomers.
This dynamic group is working to put all the pieces together for a surge in the Sky - a surge that would include a particular victory that has eluded the team for more than two decades.
Eastern has qualified for the Big Sky Conference tournament in seven of Schuller's 10 years at the helm, including back-to-back semifinal appearances in 2010 and 2011. But EWU has not actually made it out of that second round since 1988 - Eastern's first season as a member of the Big Sky.
The first goal this year, as in any year, is getting to the tournament. But once there, the Eagles will do all they can for an opportunity to play for the ultimate prize - a bid to the NCAA's big dance.
Strong senior leadership gives Eastern a firm foundation for success
Eastern graduated three seniors at the end of the 2010-11 campaign, but the transition was manageable thanks to the maturity, skill and savvy of the new set of leaders.
One of EWU's three senior captains this season is two-time All-Big Sky honoree, Brianne Ryan. The Lynden, Wash., native enters her final season in red and white with an already impressive resume. Ryan was selected as the Co-Defensive Player of the Year in 2009-10 when EWU captured the school's first-ever Big Sky regular-season title. Last season, she continued to demonstrate her competence as one of six elite players named to the All-Big Sky First Team.
Ryan played and started every game of the 2010-11 season and proved to be Eastern's biggest offensive threat, averaging 13.9 points per game on 47 percent shooting, both of which were among the top five in the conference statistically.
In Big Sky Conference play though, Ryan was even better, as she averaged 15.9 points on a 50.8 field goal percentage. She scored in double figures in all but four games of the entire 2010-11 campaign, and turned in the single-best offensive performance of all players in the Big Sky with a career-high 33 points on 14-of-18 shooting against Sacramento State (Jan. 22).
But the increased offensive production did nothing to take away from the other facet of her game, as she also averaged 4.5 rebounds and 1.8 steals throughout her junior campaign.
"Brianne is just a tremendous player on both ends of the court," commended Schuller. "She has an incredible work ethic and has really continued to improve because of it. Offensively, she has always done a great job getting to the rim, but she's also really improved her long-range shot, which makes her very difficult to guard."
After averaging a league-leading 35.8 minutes per game last season, Ryan is used to carrying a large portion of load for her team, but this year, her contributions certainly extend beyond the court.
"Brianne has done a great job of growing into that senior role," said Schuller. "She is more vocal this year than she's ever been, and you can tell she is working hard on teaching and mentoring the younger players. She approaches it in a soft manner, but is dedicated to putting her teammates in a position to be successful. And I think that is the most important characteristic of a leader."
Eastern's other all-conference returner, point guard Chene Cooper, represents the backbone of EWU's entire system.
"Coop makes us go," said Schuller. "She is the one that dictates the pace of our game. In a lot of ways, we have recruited many of our athletes around her. We want players that can get up and down the court like her. We feel we can have success doing that, and she is a great person to lead us in that style of offense."
Cooper finished the 2010-11 season ranked second in the conference in assists (5.1/game) and steals (2.3/game). But for a majority of the year, she was leading the league in both of those categories. She also had the top free throw percentage of all players in the Big Sky at 86.0 (80-93), and she was among the top 20 scorers, averaging 11.7 points per game.
Despite being one of the top 30 in the nation in assists for 14 of 18 weeks of the season, Schuller believes the five-foot point guard can elevate that part of her game even more.
"Coop does an amazing job of getting into the lane and drawing defenders," said Schuller. "It is nearly impossible to keep her in front of you. We want her to use that as a way to find the best shots for our team. Even though she was one of the top players in the conference in terms of assists last year, we will challenge her to be even better this season - to average seven or eight a game. We know she is capable. We want her to really focus on feeding her teammates, and trusting that they will knock shots down."
The third piece in Eastern's trio of veterans is guard Breauna Russell, who is coming off an injury-riddled season. Russell had a foot injury that kept her off the floor for 18 of the 31 games in the 2010-11 campaign. Although it may take some time to get back to game speed, Russell returns this season with high expectations for her final year in red and white.
"We are very excited to have Breauna back on the floor," said Schuller. "She is a well-respected leader on the team, and really rounds out that nice group of seniors."
"We missed Breauna last year for sure," added Schuller. "She gives us a different element out there in terms of a playmaker. She really makes things happen, especially on the defensive end. She is the kind of player that can spark us. We can go on runs because of the little things she does."
Prior to the injury, Russell was averaging 3.5 points, 1.2 rebounds and 0.8 steals per game. In her sophomore campaign, Russell was one of five Eagles to appear in all 31 games that year.
"It is going to take her a little while to get back into it," said Schuller. "But based on the experience and skills she has, I have no question that by the start of the Big Sky season, Breauna will be playing at her top level."
Team's potential relies heavily on post play
In Eastern's pack of six other returning letterwinners, there are three players in particular that hold a lot of the cards for the upcoming season.
"The post is going to be huge for us this year," said Schuller. "In a way, we know what we're going to get with our guards and wing players, but it's at the post position that we have to elevate our game in order to have success in the conference. This is the year we need to be a force inside."
Ojeda was a starter for most of the 2010-11 season, averaging 3.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and a team-leading 1.1 blocks per game, which ranked among the top four averages in the Big Sky.
"It's nice to watch post players grow up because you can just see it click and see it all come together," said Schuller. "As juniors now, both Carrie and Courtney understand what we're trying to do."
"I was especially pleased with what I saw in Carrie's off-season," complimented Schuller. "You could tell she had done some things to really get herself to a better place. She's in the best shape she's ever been in, and that is evident in what she's been able to do on the floor."
"We have to have Carrie on the glass," said Schuller. "We lost a great rebounder last year in Julie Piper, who was a player who went after every single rebound. I think Carrie has potential to be the same type of rebounder for us. Athletically, she is a great jumper and has great hands. We have to make sure she doesn't take any plays off, and is going, going, going all the time. If she does that, Carrie could average a substantial amount of rebounds."
Nolen will look to make significant contributions, if she can stay healthy.
"Courtney has had spurts where she's played really well for us," said Schuller. "But she has been injury-prone in her career, and that has affected her development a little bit. But right now, she is healthy and strong and has really been practicing well."
"Courtney is a smart player, and has a good feel for the game," added Schuller. "She can shoot the ball pretty effectively from 15-16 feet, and we will need her to step up and do all of those things for us."
With a year of experience, Hughes will look to continue her development as a major presence inside. The sophomore from Richland, Wash., averaged 3.4 points and 2.0 rebounds in 26 appearances during the 2010-11 season.
"You can see that a year of drills and repetition has helped Laura," said Schuller. "Last year, she had to spend a lot of time just figuring out where she's supposed to go and what to do when she gets there. But now, she's in a position where it is just more of a reaction. She doesn't have to think too much. When we start running our transition offense, she understands her role."
"Laura will continue to grow this season. We know she still has a huge ceiling."
Returning guards will not be overlooked in high numbers year
The remaining four returners have a variety of responsibilities on both ends of the floor, and Schuller is expecting at least one of her wing guards to have a breakout year. The group includes senior Jen Cogburn, junior Jordan Schoening and sophomores Aubrey Ashenfelter and Chenise Pakootas.
Schoening has always been a key factor for EWU on the defensive end, while Ashenfelter and Pakootas will be important contributors to Eastern's up-and-down offense.
"Jordan is so solid defensively," said Schuller. "She is always where she's supposed to be and goes hard all the time. Offensively, she struggled a little bit last year. But hopefully this year we can put her in a position where she doesn't feel pressure to have to do certain things, and she can just play and be who she is. Because when she does that, she is very valuable."
Last season, Ashenfelter shared point guard duties with Cooper, but at the end of the year, she moved off the point, which proved to be an advantageous move for the Portland, Ore., native.
"Aubrey is a great passer and gives us a real three-point threat," said Schuller. "She is also kind of deceivingly quick in terms of getting in the lane to make things happen. Now that she's a sophomore, that little bit of anticipation and uncertainty she had as a rookie is gone, and we think she really has a chance to have a breakout year."
Pakootas played in 22 of Eastern's 31 games last season, and earned four starting nods. In those games, she averaged 2.8 points, 1.7 rebounds and 0.5 assists.
"Chenise worked really hard to become stronger, and it has paid huge dividends for her," said Schuller. "She is tougher on the defensive end, and is just more willing to get tangled up in stuff."
"Chenise also possesses as nice of a stroke as any player on our team. If we can get her to shoot the ball consistently, she has the ability to be a solid three-point threat."
First-year players bring energy, enthusiasm and fierce competition to the court
Eastern has six players who will suit up for the first time in red and white, and one more newcomer who will be on the bench during games and be an undeniable factor in practice.
The Eagles have two returning redshirts in Meaghan Cichoke and Morganne Comstock, four freshmen in Kylie Huerta, Hayley Hodgins, Kayleigh Ryan and Melissa Williams, and one transfer from Big Sky Conference powerhouse Montana.
Sophomore Lexie Nelson will sit out this season due to NCAA transfer regulations, but the 5-6 point guard from Butte, Mont., will certainly challenge her teammates in practice, as she adapts to a new team and new system.
"Lexie is a great addition to the team," said Schuller. "She fits so well with our style of play. Getting up and down the floor and playing a lot of man-to-man defense is where she thrives. This is going to be a good year for her to learn and adjust, and I know because of the type of player she is, she will make everyone around her go hard every day."
In the group with Nelson are Cichoke and Huerta, who are expected to battle for the back-up point guard position this season.
"Meaghan is a bigger point guard for us," said Schuller. "She will be very valuable when we need size at that position. She also gives us a sense of calm that we need at the point. She can just get in there and run our offense. But like any of the freshmen who have never seen the floor, there will be a definite learning curve."
Huerta comes to Eastern after a very successful prep career at Kentwood High School. In the years just prior to Huerta's tenure, Kentwood produced Gonzaga legend and current WNBA star Courtney Vandersloot, as well as Nebraska standout/two-time All-Big 12 honoree, Lindsey Moore.
As a senior, Huerta was honored on the Associated Press 4A All-State Honorable Mention squad, and she was also a two-time South Puget Sound League North Division Player of the Year.
"What a great person," said Schuller in reference to her freshman point guard. "She is strong and tough and very coachable. She is a great passer. Kylie has a special touch. She just knows exactly where to get someone the ball and when to give it to them."
Moving away from the point and back to the wing, Eastern has two more shooting guards in the mix in Hodgins and Ryan, who is the younger sister to senior captain, Brianne.
"Hayley really gets the game," said Schuller. "She is a coach's kid, who understands what we're trying accomplish when we do different things. She has done a great job in practice, and as she gets a little stronger, has the potential to be a great scorer for us in the future."
"Kayleigh also has a chance to be a nice scorer," said Schuller. "She is a good-sized athlete, who is very coachable. She is raw in certain ways, but she definitely possesses that great Ryan work ethic. We know Kayleigh has some strong basketball in front of her."
Finally, the Eagles have two young power forwards who will be important in filling two holes left behind by Piper and Sparavalo, specifically.
Comstock will see limited time at the start of the season, as she recovers from hip surgery, but the growth the freshman experienced during her redshirt season will be invaluable as the season progresses.
"I would have to say, Morganne improved more than any other player I've had during the course of one year," said Schuller. "She got into the gym and shot and shot and shot. Every single week, you could see her getting better and better. Right now, she is still rehabilitating after her surgery, but when she comes back, she is going to be a lot of fun for people to watch. She is definitely one of those players that has a little flare to her game."
Williams, who was the 2010 Greater St. Helen's League Player of the Year and the Columbian's All-Region Player of the Year while at Camas (Wash.) High School, will look to use her size and strength to make an immediate impact in the rotation.
"We are really excited about Melissa," said Schuller. "She is as strong of a freshman as we have seen. Physically, just looking at her, you would never guess she's a freshman. She is a really good jumper, which will help in rebounding, but she also shoots it well from the perimeter. Melissa is definitely in the lines of a Julie Piper-type player."
Parity is prevalant among 2011-12 Big Sky teams
With exception of Sacramento State, which returns two, every team in the Big Sky Conference welcomes back at least three starters from their 2010-11 squads. Among those returners are 16 All-Big Sky Conference Players, including all six first-team members. In the 2011-12 preseason media poll, five different teams garnered at least one first-place vote, while the coaches had four different squads tabbed as possible champions.
"Our league is one where surprises aren't surprises anymore," said Schuller. "There are no 'gimmies' that's for sure. There will not be a single night when we can say, 'Oh, this is a W.' Every time we step on the court, we better bring it."
Eastern will open its conference slate at home with the Montana schools. Although picked fourth by both the coaches and media, Montana State may pose one of the biggest threats, as it returns four of five starters - all of whom were All-Big Sky selections a year ago.
The Grizzlies finished fourth in the 2010-11 regular season, but went on to win their 19th BSC Tournament title. Eastern's first road trip of the conference season will be at Weber State and Nothern Arizona, both of which are teams that missed out on a postseason bid a year ago. The Eagles will then host Sacramento State and defending co-regular season champon Northern Colorado, before heading back on the road to face the other co-champion in Portland State. The Vikings were selected as the preseason favorite to defend its title.
Eastern will not see Idaho State, which returns all five starters from a year ago, until the final two weeks of the season. In fact, the Eagles will wrap up every other regular-season series before seeing ISU for the first time.
The Big Sky Conference tournament is slated for March 8-10 at the site of the regular-season champion.
Before all these Big Sky battles commence though, Eastern will face 13 quality opponents in its pre-conference schedule. The Eagles open the 2011-12 campain with four-straight home games before heading out for its first road test at BYU.
"BYU is going to be a tough, tough road game," said Schuller. "But it will be good for us because we have a lot of home games early in the season that we might get into a comfort zone, so we'll need to get on the road and be tested."
Four of Eastern's first nine opponents played in national postseason tournaments last season, including two NCAA Elight Eight Gonzaga. The Eagles and Zags face off in Spokane on Dec. 9. The Eagles also play two Pac-12 schools in Oregon State (Nov. 22) and Arizona State (Dec. 2).