Cheney, Wash. – As the Eastern Washington University women's basketball team begins its 2015-16 campaign, 15-year head coach Wendy Schuller is making sure the Eagles keep their focus on the present and embrace the process it takes to become a great team.
That process gets underway this Friday, Nov. 6, in an exhibition game versus Saint Martin's at Reese Court. Tip-off is set for 6 p.m. PST.
This season, Schuller will be overseeing one of the most inexperienced squads Eastern has fielded during her time in Cheney. Despite the team's abundance of young players, Schuller believes this group possesses the talent and desire required to be successful, but only if they remain committed to improving every day.
"We're not looking ahead towards anything," said Schuller. "We're just looking at getting better today and staying in the moment. We're spending a lot of time with this group to make sure we're doing things the right way. The chemistry with this group is really good, and we've got a team full of gym rats. It's fun when you have players that love the game of basketball, and who want to be in the gym, but they understand that they have to be bought in."
Picked to finish sixth by the media and ninth by the Big Sky Conference's coaches in the preseason, Schuller believes if the Eagles maintain their focus they will be in a great position come March.
"I think the sky is the limit for this team," said Sculler. "It's just a matter of staying focused and in the moment, and not worrying about yesterday or tomorrow but worrying about every single day. We haven't talked about winning the Big Sky or the conference tournament; we've been talking about winning the day. If we can win the day every day, then I believe we'll end up where we want to be in March."
Schuller credits the leadership of EWU's core of returning players, especially fifth-year senior Hayley Hodgins and redshirt junior Tisha Phillips, as crucial for the development of Eastern's younger players
"We have great buy-in from our returning players," Schuller said. "They're doing a nice job both on the floor and behind the scenes of driving home the need to trust the process and embrace each day as a chance to get better."
Hodgins is back for her final go-around in an Eastern uniform after three stellar seasons. A First Team All-Big Sky Conference selection a year ago, she averaged 16.3 points per game while shooting 42.4 percent from the field and 35.1 percent from three-point range. She scored 538 points last season, tied for third-most by an Eagle in the program's NCAA Division I era, and enters this year ranked seventh all-time with 1,185 career points.
As much as Hodgins brings to the court, Schuller is quick to acknowledge the value she has in the locker room.
"Hayley understands what we need from her as a leader," said Schuller. "She has such a great personality. She even keeps me calm sometimes because she doesn't get worked up over things, and she has a great patience level. She's a patient person, and she's understanding, which is exactly what this young team needs from a leader."
Schuller also notes that Phillips is poised for a big junior season after spending four years, one as a redshirt and three as a reserve, learning the Eagles' system. She'll play the role of Eastern's primary ball handler this year, but Schuller is confident she has the knowledge and ability to succeed.
"Tisha is a great example of a player who has grown a lot," Schuller said. "She knows what's going on and what we should be doing, and she's doing a nice job of guiding our younger players. She understands her new role in terms of running the show and not trying to do too much, but she can make things happen when she needs to. I think she's in the best shape she's ever been in, and I'm excited for the season she's going to have."
Delaney Hodgins, Hayley Hodgins' younger sister, returns for her sophomore season a year after earning Big Sky Outstanding Freshman honors. She had one of the best freshman campaigns in program history last season, starting all 33 of EWU's games while averaging 10.5 points per game. She scored in double figures 21 times and led Eastern with 45 blocked shots.
Despite more attention from opposing defenses, Schuller is confident the younger Hodgins will grow into her expanded role with ease.
"When Delaney is allowed to just play basketball, things take care of themselves," said Schuller. "She knows she has an increased role on this team as a returning player, and there are some expectations on her that she didn't have a year ago. We haven't talked specifics in terms of productions, but I'm confident that she'll continue to improve and help us win games."
Sophomore Mariah Cunningham and redshirt freshman Bethany Montgomery are EWU's other two returning players. Cunningham played in 24 games last year, averaging 4.5 minutes per game. Montgomery sat last season out for medical reasons, but averaging 4.3 points per game on 40.5 percent shooting as a freshman in 2013-14.
Schuller tips Cunningham to burst onto the scene and have a successful sophomore season while Montgomery will be eased back into the rotation.
"Mariah has looked great so far in practice," Schuller said. "She understands our system now after having played in it last year, and she's going to get better and better. Bethany is going to have to come back slowly. It's been a long time since she's been on the floor and playing 5-on-5, so we're taking our time because we don't want to push it too hard."
The Eagles welcome seven new players into the fold this season, one junior college transfer and six recent high school graduates. Schuller cites the group's overall talent level and athleticism as signs of optimism, including the play of Umpqua Community College transfer Ashli Payne.
"Ashli is going to be an exciting player for people to watch," said Schuller. "She has the skills to play both on the perimeter and in the post, and I've been impressed with her ability to handle the ball. She plays really hard, and she's getting better and better on the defensive end every day."
Payne earned WBCA Community College All-America Team honors as a sophomore last season after averaging 17.8 points, 10.0 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game. She finished her career as Umpqua CC's fifth-leading scorer with 1,127 career points and its second-leading rebounder with 635 boards.
Freshmen Amira Chandler and Alissa Sealby bring some much-needed size to Eastern's roster. The duo played together at Wenatchee High School and won a pair of Columbia Basin Big Nine district playoff appearances. Schuller thinks Chandler's 6-2 frame and skill set has her ready to make an instant impact.
"I love everything Amira brings to the table," Schuller said. "She's vocal, which is rare to find in a young post player, and she works really hard on her game. She has the potential to become a great post player for us."
On the perimeter, freshmen Aqeelah Williams, Violet Kapri Morrow and Desiree Harding will provide important depth. Williams led Cleveland High School in Seattle, Wash., to the title game in the 3A State Tournament as a senior while Morrow averaged 16.6 points per game and 8.6 rebounds as a senior at Wilson High School in Tacoma, Wash. Harding was the 2015 Fresno Bee Player of the Year out of Fresno High School in Fresno, Calif., and averaged 19.8 points per game as a senior.
"Kapri has really stood out in practices," said Schuller. "She's got a college-ready body, is athletic and plays extremely hard. She brings some scoring and rebounding from that perimeter spot.
"Aqeelah is a flat-out scorer," Schuller continued. "For her, the biggest thing is going to be continuing to learn our system and how to play defensively."
The NCAA adopted a number of new rules this offseason designed to make collegiate women's basketball games similar to professional basketball while at the same time encouraging fewer stoppages in play.
Instead of two 20-minute halves, teams will now play four 10-minute quarters. There will also be fewer media timeouts, from eight to four, and teams will shoot two free throws on the fifth team foul of each quarter, eliminating one-and-one free throws.
"The new rules will take a little bit of getting used to," Schuller said. "Moving from two halves to four quarters is an exciting change in terms of strategy down the stretch in each quarter. One of the most interesting changes to me is getting right of one-and-one free throws. I grew up my whole life with one-and-one free throws as part of the game, and to have them be non-existent in my world is still hard to grasp."
A trip to the Lone Star State and tilts against six teams that appeared in last year's NCAA Tournament highlight Eastern's 2015-16 schedule. The Eagles' slate boasts nine contests against programs that won at least 20 games a season ago, and four meetings versus teams that claimed their respective conference's regular season title.
Schuller has never been one to shy away from scheduling tough opponents, using a challenging nonconference schedule to prepare the Eagles for the rigors of Big Sky play.
"I've always said that, in the Big Sky, we see not only high-quality opponents but a number of different styles of play," said Schuller. "When we do our nonconference scheduling, we want it to challenge us and put us up against opponents who play a variety of styles. Having that variety helps us prepare for conference play."
Eastern will open its season at home, hosting Eastern Oregon on Friday, Nov. 13, before taking on Air Force on Sunday, Nov. 15.
EWU's first road game of the year takes place on Thursday, Nov. 19, in Spokane at local foe Gonzaga. The Eagles will be looking for redemption following last season's buzzer-beating defeat to the Bulldogs at Reese Court. GU won its 11th consecutive West Coast Conference title last year and advanced to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament, falling to Tennessee.
Two-time defending Big West Tournament champion Cal State Northridge visits Reese Court on Sunday, Nov. 22, before Eastern journeys to Austin, Texas, for the Lone Star Showcase during the week of Thanksgiving. EWU will play three games in three days from Nov. 26-28, taking on Northwestern, East Carolina and Creighton in that span. Northwestern won 23 games last year and received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament while East Carolina and Creighton each earned spots in the WNIT.
December opens with a home contest against Utah Valley on Thursday, Dec. 3, followed by road games at Cal State Fullerton on Sunday, Dec. 13, and Wichita State on Tuesday, Dec. 15. Wichita State finished the 2014-15 season with a 29-5 record and both the Missouri Valley Conference regular season and tournament titles and will be eyeing another shot at the Eagles, who cruised past the Shockers, 86-58, a year ago in Cheney.
EWU wraps up nonconference play with home games versus Abilene Christian on Friday, Dec. 18, and Boise State on Monday, Dec. 21. Winners of 22 games last season, Boise State claimed the Mountain West Tournament title before losing to Tennessee in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.