Eastern women’s basketball team ready for improved season


File Photo

File Photo | The Daily Eastern News Junior Danielle Berry takes the ball up court with sophomore Taylor Steele in a game last season at Lantz Arena. Berry and Steele will both be key contributors this season to a group of guards that could be one of the best in the OVC.

JJ Bullock, Sports Editor

Last season did not go as planned for the Eastern women’s basketball team under first-year head coach Matt Bollant.

The team lost point guard Grace Lennox, the team’s main creator on offense, just eight games into the season, and after that, Bollant was forced to play an incredibly young starting lineup of freshmen and sophomores.

Eastern finished the season just 3-26.

With Bollant at the helm of the team, many expected the team led by him and Lennox to put together a season better than three wins, but circumstances did not allow that to happen.

Eastern’s 3-26 record last year is likely what is responsible for the Panthers being selected to finish in 11th place in the OVC this year.

But, because of the respect many have for Bollant around the conference and the return of Lennox to the team, Eastern thinks it will be better, and even some opposing coaches felt the preseason rankings may have been sleeping on this Eastern team.

The main reason for people feeling Eastern may be ranked too low is the combination of Bollant and Lennox. Bollant is viewed as one of the best coaches in the OVC by his peers, and Lennox is considered by some to be a top-five player in the conference.

Those two alone, some feel, will be able to lift the team above three wins.

“Obviously we are going to be better, we’re hoping a lot better. Time will tell,” Bollant said. “We’re certainly going to have a better product, we’re a lot deeper and all the returners are back and are better basketball players for sure.”

But, what had opposing coaches throwing around words like “dangerous” and “overlooked” when talking about Eastern is the fact that all of the young players that were forced into playing a lot of minutes last season, are returning this year more mature, more experienced and with more time under their belts than most players their age.

“I am expecting (Eastern) to make a big jump, especially with Grace (Lennox) coming back,” Tennessee Tech head coach Kim Rosamond said. “With all those freshmen and then you add a leader and a player like (Lennox), I think EIU can really make some strides this year and move up into that top pack of the conference.”

Lennox returns along with now sophomores Taylor Steele and Karle Pace who filled in at guard while Lennox was out and did so productively. Lennox’s injury forced guard Danielle Berry to handle a lot of the point guard duties last season as a sophomore, and she is also back to help comprise a group of guards that Bollant feels can be one of the best in the conference.

“A lot of times you see your freshmen their sophomore year (take) their biggest jump, (Steele and Pace) got to play a ton as a freshman and Grace McRae,” Bollant said. “If those three, Grace (McRae), Karle and Taylor all take the jumps I think they’re capable of taking, then I think we’re going to see us take a big jump as a team for sure.”

The returns of Berry, Steele and Pace, now that they have proven they can be playmakers, will benefit Lennox as well now that she will not have to shoulder so much of the scoring on offense, Bollant said.

In addition to what is returning, Eastern has an interesting mix of new players, headlined by freshman Kira Arthofer, who Bollant said will make an immediate impact on the court for the Panthers.

“Kira has been really consistent,” Bollant said. “Kira right now will be our first off the bench and will play a lot of minutes. She is a really good defender as a freshman and just physically, she was a state champion in track and ran the 400, so she is a big-time athlete, and she competes really hard.”

While Arthofer’s presence on the roster will be felt from game one, other newcomers on the roster, like freshman Jordyn Hughes and Abby Wahl, have shown flashes in practices, but Bollant said both still have work to do.

Wahl’s physicality has made her stand out so far to Bollant. She is already bench pressing the most weight on the team, and Bollant said her rebounding ability and presence in the paint makes her seem like she plays bigger than her six-foot-one frame.

One of the most intriguing newcomers for Eastern so far has been Vincennes transfer Claudia Stan. At six-foot-five, Stan is now the tallest player in the OVC, but she is still learning a lot on the court.

“She is still a little bit of a mystery,” Bollant said of Stan. “She had a lot to learn and a long way to go when she came in. At the same time, she has certainly blocked more shots in practice now than we probably did all last year, and she is getting rebounds when the ball bounces of the rim. It’s still a little early for her and to know what role she will play, but we will find out more (during the team scrimmage).”

Bollant plans on having a starting five of sophomore forward McRae, Nehls, Steele, Pace and Lennox. Arthofer will be the sixth player. Experienced players like Berry and senior Carmen Tellez should add valuable minutes as well, while new players like Stan, Wahl, Hughes and Damonique Miller add more of a wild card factor.

Seniors Jalisha Smith and Halle Stull will likely be competing with younger players for playing time this season, and Camino Tellez will be an interesting player to watch in her debut season as well.

The women’s basketball team opens up exhibition play Thursday against Illinois-Wesleyan. The game tips off at 6 p.m. in Lantz Arena.

JJ Bullock can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]