The Preseason WNIT field consists of: Abilene Christian (Southland); Central Michigan (MAC); Colorado State (MWC); Eastern Washington (Big Sky); Elon (Colonial); Fordham (Atlantic 10); Furman (Southern); Green Bay (Horizon); Little Rock (Sun Belt); Missouri (SEC); Nebraska (Big Ten); North Texas (C-USA); Notre Dame (ACC); Omaha (Summit), UT Rio Grande Valley (WAC); and Washington (Pac-12).
“The Preseason WNIT field features teams that will be heading into their best years and are primed for a breakthrough,” said tournament director Renee Carlson. “It’s fantastic to showcase programs that are on the rise and will represent their schools so well in the national spotlight.”
This is the 23rd rendition of the Preseason WNIT, featuring 11 teams that reached either the NCAA or WNIT postseason tournaments this past March. All games, including the championship and consolation rounds, are hosted by participating schools.
Making their Preseason WNIT debut are the squads from Abilene Christian, Central Michigan, Elon, Fordham, Green Bay, Missouri, Omaha and UT Rio Grande Valley. It’s the second time around for Eastern Washington (2005), Furman (1997), Little Rock (2009), North Texas (2006) and Washington (1994-champions). Joining the event for the third time is Colorado State (1998-champions, 2002) and Nebraska (1997, 2004); Notre Dame is in the mix for the fifth time (1996, 2004-champions, 2007, 2011).
Notre Dame was given the No. 1 spot in ESPN’s early projections for 2016-17, and several Preseason WNIT teams have earned some early accolades. Central Michigan (MAC), Colorado State (MWC), Eastern Washington (Big Sky), Green Bay (Horizon) and Little Rock (Sun Belt) are all predicted to win their conference title. Missouri is ESPN’s preseason No. 19 team, and Washington is No. 22.
Abilene Christian went 26-4 last season, winning the Southland Conference, but could not play in the NCAA Tournament as the program finishes its transition from D-II to D-I. The Wildcats have one more year to go in that shift; they did play in the 2016 Postseason WNIT and lost a close game in the first round to eventual quarterfinalist UTEP. Five players had double-digit scoring averages, and four are slated to return, including Alexis Mason (17.5 points and 4.8 rebounds per game) and twin sisters Suzzy Dimba (11.8 ppg, 7.7 rpg) and Lizzy Dimba (10.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg).
Central Michigan stubbed its toe at the end of 2015-16’s 22-11 campaign, losing in overtime to Buffalo in the MAC tournament final and shooting barely 30 percent in a first-round Postseason WNIT loss to IUPUI. The Chippewas welcome back four starters, including sophomore Presley Hudson, who led the team in steals and averaged a team-best 13.9 ppg. Two key juniors also return – 6-foot-3 forward Tinara Moore (13.7 ppg, 9.6 rpg) and 5-10 guard Cassie Breen (12.6 ppg).
Colorado State grabbed some national attention with a 28-game winning streak last season. The Rams were 31-2 overall, and came very close to springing an upset versus South Florida in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Coach Ryun Williams has brought in several foreign-born players to turn around the Rams from years of struggle – nine of the 15 players on last year’s roster were born outside the United States. Senior guard Ellen Nystrom set a single-season record for assists with 186; the team also played lock-down defense, ranking sixth in the nation at 51.2 ppg allowed.
Eastern Washington returns four starters from last year’s squad that finished 20-12 overall and should be hungry for more; the Eagles were one of five teams in the nation to win 20 games but miss the postseason. Delaney Hodgins averaged right at 16 points and seven rebounds per game as a sophomore; she’s one of the linchpin players on the roster with the graduation of older sister Hayley Hodgins, who became the program’s all-time leading scorer (1,865 points). Ashli Payne, a community college transfer, had a standout junior season and chipped in 11.2 points and a team-high 8.6 rebounds per contest.
Elon was invited to the Postseason WNIT for the second straight year in program history, but fell in the first round to Virginia Tech to finish 18-13 overall. The Phoenix return their top seven scorers from that squad. Junior Shay Burnett averaged right at 13 points and eight rebounds per game. Entering her senior year, Lauren Brown is looking to build on her numbers (9.1 ppg); she’s one of four players who averaged just a little bit less than 10 points per contest.
Fordham has to say goodbye to Samantha Clark, one of the most accomplished players in program history, but three players look more than capable of filling the void (Hannah Missry, G’Mrice Davis, Danielle Burns). Burns and Missry are talented 3-point shooters, while Davis came through with more than seven rebounds per game. Fordham hopes to be bolstered by eligible transfers Tiffany Suarez (Virginia) and Nicole Floyd (Wake Forest).The Rams were 14-17 last season; coach Stephanie Gaitley is doing impressive work in rebuilding the program, putting three 20-win seasons together in her five years at Fordham. The team had gone nearly two decades without a winning record.
Furman will lean on senior-to-be guard Whitney Bunn (who attended Bunn HS in her hometown of Bunn, NC). She averaged 16.1 points per game last year and led the team in assists and steals as the Paladins finished 15-16 overall. She’s already the program’s all-time leader in assists. Junior-to-be Cierra Carter averaged 11 points and 8.2 rebounds last year and provides interior muscle for Furman. The Paladins shot a solid 33 percent from the 3-point line last year and will look to take the next leap by taking better care of the ball (439 turnovers, to the opposition’s 360).
Green Bay claimed its 18th consecutive conference title (14th Horizon League title) this past season and ended up 28-5 overall after losing to Tennessee in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Allie LeClaire is back for her junior year, averaging 12.5 ppg; the Phoenix are defined by their fierce defense (52.2 ppg allowed, ninth best in the nation). Head coach Kevin Borseth is in his second stint with the Phoenix (1998-2007, 2012-16) and has 410 wins in his career.
Little Rock had a mixed start last season but ran off 15 straight victories to hit the 20-win mark. The Trojans, however, fell by one point to Saint Louis in the Postseason WNIT in their eighth trip to either the WNIT or NCAA tournament in the past nine years. Little Rock forced almost 18 turnovers per game last year. The top two scorers have graduated, leaving an opportunity for seniors Sharde’ Collins (9.7 ppg, 3.4 rpg) and Kaitlyn Pratt (9.5 ppg, 6.7 rpg) to take a central role. Head coach Joe Foley has 13 years in with the Trojans and has won multiple Sun Belt Conference coach of the year awards.
Missouri had its most successful season in the SEC last year, finishing 22-10 and reaching the second round of the NCAA Tournament. It was Missouri’s first NCAA appearance in 10 years, and the Tigers are loaded for another run, with sophomore-to-be Sophie Cunningham (14 ppg, 5.8 rpg) and senior Jordan Frericks (12.1 ppg, 7.7 rpg) already comfortable in the spotlight. Head coach Robin Pingeton has shown a knack for recruiting, bringing in two top-50 players in last year’s class.
Nebraska welcomes a new head coach in Amy Williams, a Cornhusker alum who just wrapped up four solid years at South Dakota (which won the 2016 Postseason WNIT). She’s got a reliable interior starter in Jessica Shepard, who was the Big Ten freshman of the year after averaging 18.5 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. Senior-to-be Allie Havers is another force down low; the 6-5 center averaged 8.3 points and 6.6 rebounds per contest. Nebraska went 18-13 last year and lost at home in the first round of the Postseason WNIT; the Huskers have earned a postseason berth in 12 of the past 13 years.
North Texas finished 11-19 last season under first-year head coach Jalie Mitchell, an impressive bounce-back for a program that went 5-24 in the previous season. The Mean Green improved their shooting percentage by more than 7 points (best in the nation) and secured the program’s first victory against a top-20 team when North Texas beat Oklahoma. JUCO transfer Kelsey Criner had a stellar debut, averaging 13 points and 5.3 rebounds per game while shooting 40 percent from 3-point range. Senior guard Terra Ellison is back after averaging 10 points per game.
Notre Dame returns a deep roster with significant upside, and there’s plenty of reason to believe in the Fighting Irish even after the team (33-2) was upset in the NCAA Sweet 16 last year. Two incoming freshmen are ranked in the top 15 nationally (Erin Boley was named Gatorade HS player of the year); there’s also star power in Brianna Turner and Lindsay Allen. Turner averaged 14.6 points and 7.3 rebounds per game and shot nearly 60 percent from the field; Allan averaged just below 10 points per game and had 204 assists last year. The team shot a scorching 41 percent from 3-point range last year.
Omaha went 15-15 last season and will surely lean heavily on senior Mikaela Shaw, who averaged 18.3 points and 7.9 rebounds per game and also led the team in assists. The Mavericks also return junior guard Remy Davenport, who averaged better than 10 points per contest and shot 37 percent from the 3-point line. Look for the team to get extra scoring punch from senior Michaela Dapprich, a transfer from Wichita State who started 34 games for the Shockers as a junior. Head coach Brittany Lange was the second-youngest coach in D-I basketball when she was hired three years ago.
UT Rio Grande Valley went 19-14 last year and reached the Postseason WNIT. The past two seasons under head coach Larry Tidwell (who started at UTRGV in 2013-14) have been the first two winning seasons in school history. The Vaqueros will look to senior guard and WAC player of the year Shawnte’ Goff, who averaged 15.5 points per game. Mary Savoy scored about 12 points and reeled in nearly 11 rebounds per game through 11 contests but was shelved after that with a broken knuckle on her right hand; she’s back for her senior season. UTRGV was formerly known as UT-Pan American until August of last year.
Washington was one of the feel-good stories from last year, reaching the NCAA Final Four and joining Oregon State as Pac-12 schools in the mix for the title. It’s logical to assume a return to earth for the Huskies (26-11), but senior guard Kelsey Plum will put up a fight – she’s already the program’s all-time leading scorer (2,418) and is poised to be the 12th player in NCAA history to reach 3,000 career points. Another senior looking to finish strong is center Chantel Osahor, who averaged 10 points a game and shot 35 percent from 3-point range.