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The Eastern women’s basketball team was picked to finish 10th in the Ohio Valley Conference preseason poll, and to put that ranking in the words of Tennessee-Martin head coach Matt McMillan, “that’s low.”
Although the 10th ranking out of 12 OVC teams does seem low, Eastern head coach Matt Bollant recognized that most preseason rankings are based on what a team did the previous season, and the Panthers’ 5-13 conference record a season ago did not exactly give the Panthers much merit in the polls this season.
But Eastern is returning four of its top five scorers from a season ago and is also welcoming a freshman class that includes a player Bollant says is the best open-court player he has seen in the program.
Who is returning?
Four of the Panthers’ five starters have already been solidified headed into the season. Sophomore Kira Arthofer will start at point guard, juniors Karle Pace and Taylor Steele will play the other two guard positions and Abby Wahl will be one of the starting forwards.
Pace (13.9 ppg) and Steele (11 ppg) return as the Panthers’ No. 1 and No. 2 scorers from a season ago, and as upperclassmen now, another jump is expected to come in their play this season.
Both Pace and Steele have seen a lot of the court since their freshmen seasons, which Bollant says gives them the look and feel of seniors on a court as just juniors.
“Karle and Taylor have led our team from the summer, they have started every game since they have been here and so they’re like veteran juniors. Some kids as seniors don’t play their freshman year; they’re like seniors as far as they’re playing, so just having those two on the floor (will be key),” Bollant said.
Pace and Steele’s ability to shoot the three ball will give the Panthers freedom to space out the floor and open things up inside for Wahl, who Bollant says could be one of the top, if not the best, forward in the OVC by the time the season gets rolling.
“Abby Wahl came in and was our No. 12 or No. 13 when she came in and now is our best post player, and I think she is going to be the best post player in the league or certainly one of the top, so we have a sophomore post player that I think is as good as anybody in our league,” Bollant said.
It is still unclear who will join Wahl in Eastern’s starting frontcourt, but likely it will be either sophomore Grace McRae or senior Jennifer Nehls. Both Nehls and McRae are coming back from minor injuries, and because of that Bollant has not ruled out the possibility of freshman Morgan Litwiller seeing important minutes on the court.
Arthofer may be the most interesting starter to watch this season, however. Bollant said she is the best defender on the team and has “solidified” her starting spot at point guard, but Arthofer has big shoes to fill in replacing Grace Lennox at the position, and how she does that will be a key narrative for the Panthers’ season.
Who is new?
Eastern has three freshmen on its roster and one transfer sophomore who will be ineligible to play.
Litwiller as mentioned above may see significant minutes at the forward position, but it is freshman guard Lariah Washington who figures to have the biggest effect on the court for the Panthers of the freshman group.
Bollant said Washington is the best open court player the program has had since he has been here.
“She’s been great, and certainly she’d be in the starting lineup today or be No. 6 or 7, she averaged 28 per game playing against all of the big schools in Minnesota; she just has a confidence about her,” Bollant said. “In the open court, she is better as a freshman than anybody we have had in the open court since I have been here, even the last two years. If Lariah has got the ball in the open court and anybody else on our roster the last two years, Lariah wins. She is the best player in the open court we have and she is going to go make plays.”
Who is on the schedule?
Eastern’s non-conference schedule is significantly tougher than it was last season. It includes road visits to Illinois-Chicago, Lipscomb, Evansville, Omaha, and the annual Illinois compass tournament which features games against, Northern, Southern and Western Illinois. The Panthers’ road schedule also includes a date with Wisconsin on Nov. 26.
Eastern has home non-conference games against Indiana State, Valparaiso and Lindenwood.
Eastern begins conference play on Jan. 2 at Tennessee State.
Regardless of who the Panthers play, the expectation from the opponents and from Bollant is that Eastern is going to play exceptionally hard basketball.
“It’s who I am as a coach, I want kids to work really hard, I want to play with great effort,” Bollant said. “I know a lot of teams say they do, and I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that. There is games last year where I said we didn’t play as hard as we can play and I think that is one of the advantages of having veterans is they know the expectation and I think you’ll see us play harder than our opponent day in and day out.”
Rival Views: How OVC coaches size up Eastern
Rick Pietri, head coach Jacksonville State:
“They have always been a problem for us to guard because they have been so skilled and been able to score from all different spots on the floor, with all different personnel, so that’s a challenge cover,” Pietri said. “And of course they beat us last year at their place.”
Rekha Patterson, head coach Southeast Missouri
“They continue to get better every year, I don’t care what their record says, they’re a team that’s hard to beat,” Patterson said. “They were young a couple of years ago but now all those players have experience, they know how to win and they know how to be in tough games. They’re going to shoot the three, they’re going to spread you out, they’re going to play their buzz defense and you have to be prepared for that because they can turn you over. But they are never going to stop playing.
Kim Rosamond, head coach Tennessee Tech
“First of all I see a coach in Matt Bollant that is one of the best coaches in the country. I followed his career for a long, long, time and Matt does an excellent job and he is in his process, he’s building that program to look like he wants it to look and anybody who has watched what he did at Green Bay and his success that he had, you know he is going to do really, really good things there.”
Bart Brooks, head coach Belmont
“What I see from that group is the competitiveness, the scores and the wins sometimes don’t show the whole story of how that group is getting better and better and what I think you are going to see from that group is a really competitive team and there is not going to be a game that they’re not in this year in our league and I think that speaks volumes to coach Bollant doing a great job. We are going to have our hands full every time we play EIU.”
JJ Bullock can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]