OKLAHOMA CITY (Nov. 7, 2013) – At the end of the 2012-13 women’s basketball season, Oklahoma Christian was on a serious roll.
The Lady Eagles ended the double-digit winning streak of Heartland Conference champion Texas-Permian Basin in the regular-season finale, then did the same to Southern Nazarene in the National Christian College Athletic Association Central Region title game before finishing fourth at the NCCAA Championship – the best national finish in the program’s history.
With all but two players back from a team that went 20-13, won 11 of its last 15 games and would have finished third in the Heartland Conference standings had its league games been counted, OC coach Stephanie Findley is curious to see if her squad can carry that momentum into this season, which opens Saturday when the Lady Eagles host York (Neb.).
“We were a good team there at the end and really were playing well up through the (NCCAA) regional,” Findley said. “That’s what we’re looking for, to be able to finish strong again and then continue that, hopefully, into the NCCAAs. This team, we have a lot of seniors and a lot of experience and I’m hoping that will pay off big in that way.”
OC lost all-everything center Katy O’Steen and energetic guard Madison Middle from last season, but added a NCAA Division I transfer (Emma Gade), two stars from one of the state’s top small-school prep programs (McKenzie Stanford and Jordan Gorham of Perkins-Tryon) and a potential defensive stopper (Kylee Hicks).
Up and down the roster, the Lady Eagles have experience, depth and versatility – the ability to go big or go small, speed up the game or slow it down.
“We do have a lot of options,” Findley said.
Initially, at least, the Lady Eagles will be a bit shorthanded on the frontline due to the injury bug, with Gade, Gorham and junior Makenzie Brown projected to miss some games early in the season, but all three should eventually return to action.
OC might not have a true back-to-the-basket center like O’Steen, but seniors Roz Hamilton (a returning starter who averaged 11.8 points and 6.5 rebounds per game) and 6-foot-3 Andee Wayne are capable of handling inside duties, with help from Stanford and senior Mica Havens. When Gorham and Brown are healthy, both also should figure into that mix.
There are several other possibilities at power forward, including sophomore Aisha Martin and junior Skyler Newberry, and Gade could even see time at that position. Such depth is a luxury, especially when dealing with injuries, Findley said.
On the wing, the 6-foot Gade – a quality shooter who played for two seasons at Oral Roberts – will provide a sizable presence along with Martin and Newberry.
OC’s backcourt is just as deep as its frontline and it won’t be surprising to see the Lady Eagles frequently use three-guard lineups. Seven guards return who have seen significant action during their careers, including five who started 10 or more games each last season, and almost all of them are capable of handling both the point and shooting guard positions.
Sophomore Sydney Hill ended the season on a particularly high note with a pair of breakout scoring games against Texas-Permian Basin (29 points) and Cedarville (Ohio) in the NCCAA quarterfinals (24 points) and tied for the team lead in steals with 49.
Two other sophomores, Jasmine Hinton and Daisha Gonzaque, have proven themselves as defensive pests for opposing ballhandlers, recording 27 and 30 steals, respectively. A fourth sophomore, Lindsey Larkin, also showed promise in limited minutes last season.
Junior Kaitlyn Morris has bounced back from knee injuries that robbed her of most of two seasons and possesses a 3-point shot that opponents must respect. Another junior, Logan McKee, started most of last season and provides a significant rebounding threat from the backcourt. She led the team in 3-pointers (60) and steals (49).
Senior Krista Stevens, another returning full-time starter, also returned from a season’s absence to prove herself as a clutch shooter – hitting a game-winning 3-pointer in the final seconds against Newman (Kan.) – and a strong defender (47 steals), while senior Talor Ward can provide veteran savvy off the bench.
Findley also is excited about Hicks, a 5-foot-9 freshman who she thinks could provide energy and a defensive presence off the bench when the Lady Eagles need to stop a foe’s momentum.
The travel schedule, particularly during the first semester, will be challenging, although no one is complaining. On successive November weekends, the Lady Eagles will play in a Friday-Saturday event in Pueblo, Colo., then open conference play with Thursday and Saturday games in San Antonio and Laredo, Texas. A couple of days later, they’ll board a plane to Hawaii, where they will play two games over Thanksgiving break.
“It’s going to wear on us,” Findley said. “But one way to look at it is that during the second semester, there will be times when we go on long road trips on back-to-back weeks, so we’ll have some experience doing it.”