The Emporia State men and women’s basketball teams both head south on Thursday to open the regular season this weekend.
The Hornet men will tipoff on Friday night in Russellville, Arkansas, in a MIAA/GAC Crossover that will see ESU begin with Southwestern Oklahoma State before facing host Arkansas Tech on Saturday.
ESU’s outlook for the Hornet men is a significantly different one than it held last year in Craig Doty’s first season with the team. Now it’s about building a long-lasting level of competitiveness.
“This year is so different from last year,” he said. “This year feels like year one. Last year, we brought in a bunch of one-year transfers that are super-talented. It wasn’t about growth and development of the student-athlete last year because there were seven seniors that took the load in and ... they are who they are when they’re 22, 23 years old. This (is mostly a) group of young, impressionable student-athletes. Keep in mind everybody is coming back next year. We have one senior and he’s injured. We get these guys for a minimum of right at 60 games, for the freshmen close to 120 games. It’s not just about this year. Last year was about how can we get this program off the ground as we inherited the last place team in the league and we got it off the ground. This year is about not only can we compete and win some games this year — yes, that would be great — but is there a difference this year between (going) 10-18 and 14-16? There is, only if there is growth being made. Our goal and our vision is to be able to position ourselves for the future so we are competing at the top of the MIAA.
“The way to do that is to have guys stay in your program for many years and have freshmen grow into juniors. We can’t rush that process, we have to appreciate the process. We have to go through it, we have to enjoy each other and we will and we’re going to compete to the best of our ability.”
That competition began in the preseason with a roster completely overhauled with new faces, save for junior Duncan Fort. He will begin as one of ESU’s lead reserves, but fellow juniors Justin Williams, Jumah’ri Turner and Brenden Van Dyke will begin in the starting lineup, while freshman Gage McGuire will hold the three-spot in the lineup for a currently injured Dallas Bailey.
“We’ve had guys leverage themselves to earn starting spots,” Doty said. “Injuries have come up which has allowed other guys to slide in.
At the five?
Doty said it will start with freshman Mason Thiessen, (6-9) saying he’d earned the spot. He also titled the potential rotation as a “three-headed monster,” including sophomore Devin Rottweiler (6-8) and freshman Justin Balcome (6-10).
As the season progresses, Doty and his staff will continue to gage progress and work to build the strength, skills and confidence of each of his student-athletes.
“We are cautiously, cautiously optimistic,” he said. “We have a young group, but we have an awesome group. We couldn’t ask for a better group of guys to grow with. That being said, we do have a group of transfers and a group of freshmen and we really need those transfers to take on a leadership role. Part of what’s going on right now is those freshmen are so good, that they’re competing against the transfers on a daily basis and there’s not a ton of difference in terms of talent margin. That’s a really good sign for the future. If our transfers can show up and take on a leadership role and show up big in these games, we feel we can compete right away.”
“We’ve got to compete every single possession, we have to play defense (and) we have to protect the basketball. If we can do those things, we’re sitting in a pretty good spot to try and get some wins this weekend. If we struggle and we’re inconsistent, then we leave it up to maybe somebody else.”
The Lady Hornets also will start in Arkansas, roughly 90 miles away at the Big Red Stores Classic in Searcy. ESU’s first task will be a daunting one, host-seed Harding, predicted to win the Great American Conference (GAC) and a regular visitor to the NCAA Central Region Tournament. The last time ESU advanced to the Sweet 16, it was the Bison, in Rhodes-Reaves Field House that sent the Hornets home.
“We know it’s a tough challenge,” ESU Head Coach Toby Wynn said. “They were picked to win their league, they return all five starters and added a few other key pieces. Hopefully those exhibition games, playing good teams, good competition has been something that will help us be prepared for them. They’re definitely a formidable (opponent). I think our players will be up to it, they’ll be excited about it. There’s a little rivalry there, so to speak. I think just the excitement of starting the season off with a quality opponent like that, like we did a year ago with (eventual national champion) Southwestern Oklahoma, it could be a good advantage for us to be able to do that. Hopefully, we’ll come ready to play and play well.”
Wynn, also entering his second year, said he’s felt more comfortable, as has his players, with the mutual understanding of expectations becoming more definitive.
“I think all of our players are a lot more comfortable and they’re all ready to go,” he said. “Everything from the postseason last year to the preseason this year has gone very smooth. Everybody has a little more confidence in what we’re trying to do and what we’re trying to accomplish.”
The goals certainly are to maintain a high level of expectation as ESU advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the sixth time in eight years last spring, though its stay was abbreviated.
Some of the new additions to the Lady Hornet roster will seek to extend that.
In addition to three freshmen, as well as a sophomore and junior transfer, senior Mollie Mounsey has the most expectation after serving as the second-leading scorer and rebounder for Colorado State last season, ranking among the conference leaders in 3-point shooting.
She played for Wynn in her first two years as a collegiate athlete at Seward County.
During ESU’s two exhibition games, she displayed a high level of willingness to defer to her teammates.
There will be times for that, but Wynn hopes she feels more comfortable in simply taking charge as the season gets underway.
“We told her, we brought you here to score for us, be a factor,” Wynn said. “You’re not here just to pass the basketball and keep everybody involved. If the opportunity’s there for you, you have to make the most of it and take advantage of it. The game against Oklahoma State, she was probably pressing a little bit (but) the game against KU, she relaxed a little bit more, took advantage of her opportunities, made some really good plays and I think she has something to build off of.”
ESU will play Harding at 4:45 p.m. Friday before taking on Henderson State at noon, Saturday, in Searcy.
“I just want to see us compete,” Wynn said. “Every coach wants to see (their team) compete and play super-hard. I think another thing I’d like is ... for us to shoot the basketball better. Our exhibition games, we haven’t shot the ball that well and I think that’s something we need to do better as a team.”