The Preseason WNIT offers teams a three-game window to try out new lineup options, add some heft to their non-conference schedule, and start the search for solutions to any little hiccups that have popped up since the start of official practice in October.
Here’s a look at four programs who are coming to the Preseason WNIT for the first time – whether it’s a chance to spring an upset, or hold their turf as the favored squad in a given matchup, these teams expect to emerge from the event more prepared for the conference grind.
ALABAMA STATE – The Lady Hornets finished 17-15 last season, winning two nail-biters in the SWAC Tournament before stomping Southern in the title game to claim the crown and secure the program’s second berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Britney Wright averaged about 17 points and seven rebounds per game; the 5-foot-10 junior forward was named the preseason Player of the Year in the SWAC, and she offers a steady shooting eye from 3-point range as well as strength and quickness. Another player getting early attention is Jasmine Peeples, a 6-2 senior center who averaged better than 10 rebounds and three blocked shots per game. Both players are easing back into action after nursing injuries over the summer and early fall.
“Our success from last year has carried over to this year. Something that we started at the end of the season this past year was getting our mindset to where we change the culture of our team in having a winning program here at Alabama State,” said head coach Freda Freeman-Jackson, who played at ASU from 1980-84 and has coached the team for 16 years. “We felt that our players have bought into it. We have a lot of new players and we realized that we had to slow some things down a little in order for our young players to understand what we are trying to do.”
Sophomore Shamyiah Smith, a 5-2 guard, earned second-team preseason honors in the SWAC and should offer explosive quickness in the backcourt. Damya Toney is a JUCO transfer who should help with some offensive burst, and fellow JUCO product Danielle Clark should also get a chance to contribute as the Lady Hornets try to anchor themselves as a factor in the SWAC.
“As everyone knows, preseason is usually tough,” Freeman-Jackson said. “We open up against Southern Miss in the WNIT; if we beat them then we may have to play against Baylor, which we expect to be a tough game, but we are going to play with our best ability and go into the game with the mentality that we can win. After that we play Georgia Tech, which is an ACC team, so we have a tough schedule like we have been having every year.”
Alabama State plays at Southern Miss on Nov. 13.
JACKSONVILLE – The Dolphins were 12-17 last season, but the program has some anchor points on the roster, players who are still young but have looked more than capable in the heat of competition.
Sherranda Reddick averaged 14 points per game and enters her junior year with a proven shooting eye, enough to earn a unanimous selection to the all-Atlantic Sun preseason team. Two sophomores, Kayla Gordon and Brandi Buie, became fixtures in the starting lineup as last year evolved, with Gordon earning Freshman of the Year honors in the conference.
Head coach Yolett McPhee-McCuin has an interesting resume, as she is also the head coach for the women’s national team from the Bahamas. The Atlantic Sun has the potential to be a bit unsettled, as Florida Gulf Coast (which was ranked in the preseason top 25 by ESPN) will be without guard Whitney Knight for up to six weeks because of a broken foot.
Jacksonville plays at South Florida to start the WNIT, on Nov. 13.
SOUTHERN MISS – The Lady Eagles went 25-11 last season and won 13 of its last 17 games, riding that hot streak all the way to the quarterfinals of the postseason WNIT. They fell short to Michigan at home, but more than 5,400 fans showed up, the most in program history.
Jerontay Clemons is the lone senior on the squad; she topped 12 points and six rebounds per game and also led the team in steals. A two-time state track and field champion (200, 400 meters) in high school, Clemons is a terror on defense. The roster has an intriguing weapon in freshman Caitlin Jenkins, a 6-3 center who led all of Louisiana high schools in averaging 30 points and 14 rebounds per game.
As it turned out, thanks to injuries and transfers, only four players from last year’s active roster are back for 2015-16, but head coach Joye Lee-McNelis says the mindset to win is intact.
“We’re going to be a whole lot quicker than we were last year,” Lee-McNelis said. “Our guards are extremely athletic. They’re very fast. We’re off to the races. We want to shove it down their throat.”
Southern Miss will host Alabama State on Nov. 13.
ST. BONAVENTURE – The Bonnies were 15-15 last year and return five players who started more than 20 games, although the tough Atlantic 10 is expected to make the jump to the next level a difficult one.
Senior forward Katie Healy, however, was named to the all-league preseason first team; she topped 14 points and six rebounds per game and was also valuable in terms of assists and steals.
“I expect her to compete and work at the level she’s able to, which is a very high level,” said head coach Jim Crowley. “She stayed around all summer and worked really hard. She’s increased her range and has improved her handle.”
St. Bonaventure will be trying to take better care of the ball this time around (15 turnovers per game last year was the norm), and also hope for better production from 3-point range. Nyla Rueter was the team’s best shooter and will likely need to add to that for the team to improve.
“We feel good about our experience. We had a productive offseason,” Crowley added. “It’s been an intense spring and summer, and we’re ready to play against someone else (as opposed to practicing among themselves). We’ve stayed healthy and we keep getting better.”
St. Bonaventure will host Siena to start the WNIT on Nov. 13.