The Eastern Washington women's basketball team is used to playing the underdog role. In fact, the Eagles seem to relish it. Picked eighth in last year's Big Sky Preseason Poll, EWU wound up finishing third in the conference after winning 19 games for only the fourth time in school history, earning a trip to the WNIT in the process.
This year, however, it looks like Eastern will not be sneaking up on anyone.
With four returning starters and nine returning letter winners, both the Big Sky coaches and media members tabbed the Eagles as overwhelming favorites to win the league this year. Despite the figurative target on its back, head coach Wendy Schuller believes this year's group is poised to have a special season.
"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."
This year's team may be motivated, but they are also extremely talented. Headlining a group of four returning starters is junior guard Lexie Nelson, who led Eastern with an average of 14 points per game en route to earning First Team All-Big Sky honors. Sophomore guard Hayley Hodgins also returns after collecting Eastern's first Big Sky Freshman of the Year award in 20 seasons a year ago.
Also back are do-everything senior forward Aubrey Ashenfelter, who started all 32 games last year, and junior point guard Kylie Huerta, last season's Big Sky assist-turnover ratio leader. Senior center Laura Hughes, Eastern's top field goal percentage shooter from a year ago, also returns along with 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. It's just a matter of honing what they're doing and then being able to add on to some things."
Nelson and Huerta formed Eastern's backcourt for the final 17 games of last season. Coincidentally, the Eagles won 12 of those games, including win streaks of five and four, respectively. Nelson connected on 41 percent of her shots and led EWU in scoring 14 different times, notching 20 or more points five times. She also paced the Big Sky and ranked 27th nationally in free throw percentage, shooting .855 from the charity stripe. Huerta ranked second in the conference and 77th nationally with an average of 4.5 assists per game. She also led Eastern in steals and hit double figures in points nine times during the year.
"Having both Lexie and Kylie back is really nice for us," said Schuller. "It's also great for them because they know the expectations and they know our system. I also have a great feel for them now. I know when to let them loose a little bit and let them just play. We kind of got to that point a little bit last year where late in the season we let them loose, and I think we had a lot of success with it."
The Eagles also look solid on the wings with Hodgins and Ashenfelter bringing back plenty of experience. Hodgins led Eastern, and ranked third in the Big Sky, in three-point percentage, connecting on nearly 40 percent of her shots from long range. She averaged 7.8 points per game last season and led EWU in scoring six times during the year, five of which came in league contests while the sixth came against PAC-12 member Washington in the WNIT. Ashenfelter, who Schuller describes as the "glue," ranked third on the team in scoring, second in assists and third in rebounding a year ago. Also Eastern's best defender, she routinely is matched up with the opposing team's best player.
"I think both Hayley and Aubrey will have great years," said Schuller. "Hayley has picked up where she left off, playing with a lot of confidence. She's gotten stronger and continues to do some really good things. Aubrey is a player, both offensively and defensively, that just has a great feel for everything that we want to do. She makes plays when she needs to. Bottom line, we have more success when Aubrey's on the floor."
The most intriguing battle for minutes will take place in the post, with both Hughes and Williams pushing for the starting spot. Hughes led the Eagles in field goal percentage last season, making more than 49 percent of her shots. She also ranked fourth on the team in rebounds and fifth in scoring, reaching double-figures in points in 12 games. Williams, arguably the team's best rebounder, posted averages of 6.1 rebounds and 4.7 points a year ago. She had two double-doubles last season and finished just behind Hughes in field goal percentage.
"That will be an interesting battle to keep an eye on," said Schuller. "Laura stayed here over the summer and got in the best shape she's ever been in, and has looked really good. Melissa just keeps getting better and better. 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 depth and experience that Eastern returns will not only help the Eagles on the court, it will also help them from a leadership standpoint, something Schuller says the team is still working on.
"I think it's still a work in progress," said Schuller. "There's an expectation for players who are upperclassmen or players who have been here. Hayley, Kylie, Aubrey and Lexie are all people you'd expect to step up and be leaders. They're a unique group because they're each a different kind of leader. Lexie's not a vocal kid but she's very much a leader by example. We're trying to get a couple other ones to be a little more vocal because I think they have it in their personality."
That group of leaders will look to help a talented freshman class get used to the rigors of Big Sky play and what it takes to be successful. Freshman guard Jade Redmon, from Mead High School in Spokane, will push for minutes at the point guard spot while Tacoma native Bethany Montgomery brings athleticism and playmaking ability to the wing spots. 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," said Schuller. "Jade is a fabulous guard who has a great feel and has picked everything up really quickly. Bethany brings a really nice athleticism to our team. She plays really hard and can make some things happen. Marly is a big kid that can shoot it and can play with her back to the basket. For her, sometimes getting used to the college game and the physical play takes time, but once she gets there I think she'll be pretty good."
Eastern looks to have all the makings of a championship team. A core of returning players who are both talented and motivated to make their mark, coupled with an exciting group of freshmen that bring new dimensions to the Eagles' style of play. Schuller did not shy away of voicing the team's ultimate goal of making the NCAA Tournament, but she was quick to clarify how EWU can return to the Big Dance.
"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."