“Give somebody a knuckle,” Coach Kari Flunker-Hoffman yells following a pre-practice drill. The Cedarville women’s basketball team bump knuckles on the baseline with each other as practice gets underway.
Coming off a magical 27-win season in which they won their conference and received an at-large bid to the NCAA Division II Tournament, head coach Kirk Martin and his team are back and hungry for more.
Senior forward Kayla Linkous said the team’s goal is to go beyond what they did last year.
“We really want to make it back to nationals,” she said. “We want to make it back and win a few games.”
The Lady Jackets had winning streaks of eight and 11 games last season, were undefeated on the home court and went 15-1 in conference play. But Martin has wiped the slate clean for a team that overachieved last season with seven freshmen and is expected to win the conference again.
Martin said he makes sure to remind his players that preseason polls are meaningless.
“People get lazy when they vote in preseason and kind of choose to pick the teams that finished in the order the previous year, which is a natural assumption. We all do it, I do it. But the reality is, every year’s different,” Martin said.
He said he is more concerned with how the team will play once the season begins.
How’s the chemistry, how are the injuries, who’s back, and how motivated are you to defend a title? Those are all questions that will be answered on the floor once we start in November.
The team has added three new players in hopes of defending their G-MAC championship. Christina McQueen, a power forward transfer from Gardner-Webb University, joins freshmen signees Ellie Juengel and Jamie Dodane.
Linkous and sophomore center Breanne Watterworth will anchor the frontcourt with McQueen, along with sophomores Emily Williams and Taylor Buckley.
“We’ve got a lot of depth in the post, and I’m post-minded, and this is as strong a group as we’ve ever had here,” Martin said.
The team does have positions to fill. The biggest hole to fill will be the void left by Raegan Ryan, last season’s NCCAA player of the year and the Jackets’ leading scorer. Ryan, a senior point guard last year, averaged 17.5 points per game and shot 42 percent from behind the three-point line. She also led the team in assists and steals.
Juengel and Dodane, both guards, join sophomore Abby Wolford and senior Whitney Robinson in the backcourt. Wolford, who averaged eight points a game last year coming off the bench, will be the team’s primary ball handler starting out, Martin said.
Sharing the ball
As far as putting the ball in the basket, the team knows replacing Ryan will take a group effort.
“I don’t think this will be one person,” Martin said. “Raegan was unbelievable. She put us on her back early in the year and built our confidence up. That’s going to be tough to replicate.”
Linkous, who was second on the team in scoring last season, said, “We have a lot of people that can shoot, so any night can be anyone’s game. We definitely will score by committee. Every game you never really know who is going to be the high scorer, so it’s just night by night.”
Senior Kaysie Brittenham, second on the team in assists, blocks and steals last season, said she thinks the team will spread the ball around.
“I think it’s gonna be pretty fairly well distributed throughout the team,” she said. “I think Kayla will score a lot for us as well as Abby, but we have a lot of good shooters.”
Facing the competition
Martin stressed the importance of getting the season off to a good start.
“If we can survive the first five games, we’ll be all right,” he said. “Our schedule is pretty well-balanced. It is just really strong at the beginning.”
The team will face off against some powerful opponents this year. The Lady Jackets open the season against Ashland, a team that won two games in the national tournament. During Christmas break, the Jackets will travel to Alaska to play two teams. One of those teams, Alaska Anchorage, finished the regular season ranked number one in Division II.
Until those big games arrive, the Lady Jackets will strive to improve upon last year’s team that did so well.
“Before our first scrimmage, we’re going to give our team the rings that we chose to buy them from last year, which basically say, ‘First to qualify for the national tournament,’” Martin said. “Just to remind them that took hard work and commitment and dedication, and to ask them, ‘Do you want to do it again?’ We were proud of you, but it’s a new year. Here we go.”
Dave Guidone is a senior social studies education major and sports reporter for Cedars. His hobbies include eating, snacking, shooting hoops and laughing. Hebrews 13:8.