FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - The Northern Arizona women's basketball team enters the 2013-14 season with a youthful roster and hopes to build on strides made in the right direction last year. The Lumberjacks' season begins this Sunday, Nov. 10 at home versus Hawaii at 3 p.m. at the Rolle Activity Center.
In head coach Sue Darling's first year at the helm of the Lumberjacks, NAU narrowly missed clinching its first Big Sky Tournament berth since the 2008-09 season finishing just one spot out of the top-seven. Still, the Lumberjacks won the program's most Big Sky games and had its most road wins since the 2006-07 season while sweeping three opponents during conference play during an 8-21 campaign, 7-13 in the Big Sky.
Darling returns just three players from last season, but brings in a talented class of 10 newcomers to round out this year's roster. Led by senior Amanda Frost and juniors Raven Anderson and Erikka Banks, it should be an exciting season in year two of the Sue Darling era in 2013-14.
"Amanda, Raven, and Erikka are program veterans," Darling said. "They know our expectations and will provide great leadership throughout the season. As a team, we will play hard and play together. For what we lost in experience, we gained in work ethic, teamwork and intelligence. Each player brings something different and special to our team. They are a fun group to coach and they'll be fun to watch."
The Lumberjacks will need to replace two starters in their backcourt from a year ago in departed seniors Amy Patton and Paige Haynes. In particular, Patton finished her career as one of the most decorated Lumberjacks to ever wear the NAU uniform. Patton, an All-Big Sky first team selection and just one of two players to be a four-time all-conference selection in school history, leaves as the program's all-time leading scorer and rebounder among several places in the NAU top-10 career charts while Haynes ranked fourth in the Big Sky in assists.
This year's backcourt begins with Frost, the team's lone senior and captain this season. The Riverside, Calif. native was the team's second leading scorer a year ago with a career-high 9.9 points per game and also led the team in three-point percentage. Frost started 17 of 18 games after missing the first two months of the season due to an injury and enters her final season as one of the program's most prolific three-point shooters, currently ranked fifth in three pointers made per game and eighth in three-point percentage.
"Amanda is the heart of our team," Darling said. "She is our hardest worker and our physical and emotional leader. She ups our level of play both offensively and defensively."
The point guard duties will likely be handled by a pair of freshmen in Rene Coggins and Brittani Lusain. Coggins, an All-State honorable mention player out of Mesa Mountain View High School in Mesa, Ariz., and Lusain, a four-year starter and three-year captain at Mater Dei Catholic High School in San Diego, Calif., have both shown the ability to run the point through the preseason.
"Rene is a steady and savvy point guard," Darling said. "She is a solid ball handler, passer and shooter. She has a calming presence on offense. I appreciate her leadership ability and her desire to do what it takes to win."
"Brittani is an exciting player," Darling added. "She can play both the point and off-guard. She does a fantastic job finding her teammates in transition. She is our best defender and a terrific rebounder."
Also joining the fold on the wings are freshmen Avonna Lee, Taylor Leyva and sophomore transfer Bisera Peshkova. Lee averaged 17.1 points and nine rebounds per game as a high school senior and was her league's top three-point shooter. Leyva comes to NAU after an accomplished prep career at Pueblo West High school in Colorado and Peshkova transfers after one season at Central Arizona CC where she helped her team reach the Final Four of the NJCAA National Tournament.
Lee and Leyva are expected to play major roles in their first collegiate seasons after impressing in the early going.
"Taylor is one of those glue-type players that can hit a shot, grab a rebound or make sure we're running the offense the right way," Darling said. "Avonna will play quality minutes for us. She is a very versatile player - an outstanding shooter, passer, and rebounder."
In the frontcourt, the Lumberjacks will count on Anderson and Banks, both of whom made great progress in their second seasons last year. Anderson was one of four players to appear in all 29 games last year and was a valuable member of NAU's bench with career-high averages in 6.3 points and 4.0 rebounds in just over 14 minutes per game. She was among the conference's top rebounders on the offensive glass with a team-high 2.2 offensive boards per game. Meanwhile Banks bounced back from an early season injury of her own to play in 15 games and average career-highs of 7.5 points and 5.1 rebounds. She finished the season strong posting double-figure points in five of her final eight games including a career-performance against Sacramento State with 25 points, 14 rebounds and seven steals.
"Raven and Erikka came back in great shape - physically and mentally," Darling said. "They are hungry and focused and have provided great leadership in the preseason. We will rely on them not only for the bulk of our scoring and rebounding, but also as team leaders."
Anderson will fill the void left by Aubrey Davis, the team's starting center each of the last two seasons. Backing up Anderson at the center position will be true freshmen Hunter Thomas and Bradlee Cotton. Thomas was a second team all-state player in Kansas at Blue Valley Southwest High School and broke the single season school records in scoring, rebounding, blocked shots and shooting percentage. Cotton also was an all-state product in Colorado where she was also a four-time all-conference selection at Denver School of Science & Tech.
The Lumberjacks will receive boosts from a few other freshmen including Priscilla Brooks and Catelyn Preston. Brooks averaged a double-double in each of her final two high school seasons including 18.7 points and 10.5 rebounds per game as a senior. Preston will swing between the front and backcourt with her versatility and will help ease the loss of Tyler Stephens-Jenkins, who spent the last four seasons in that role.
"Priscilla is a savvy forward," Darling said. "She has a quick first step and is very strong attacking the basket. She also has the ability to hit a 15-foot shot and is a very strong rebounder. Catelyn is another versatile player. She can pass, score and rebound. She is a fantastic passer both in transition and in the half-court."
Shay Young, a sophomore transfer after playing one year at New Mexico State, rounds out the roster but will need to redshirt this year due to NCAA transfer rules.
NAU has a 29-game schedule on tap this season beginning this Sunday at home versus Hawaii, which will be the first of three home non-conference dates. It will mark the first season opener at home for the Lumberjacks since the 2007-08 season. The team will also host UT Arlington on Dec. 14 and LIU Brooklyn on Dec. 30 prior to beginning Big Sky play. Also before beginning the conference season, NAU will travel to UTEP, Utah Valley, UC Santa Barbara, Loyola Marymount, Cal State Northridge and Pepperdine.
When the calendar turns to 2014, the Lumberjacks turn to the conference season beginning with home games against Montana and Montana State on Jan. 2 and 4. The first and second halves of conference play are even with five home and five away games in each half.
"The non-conference schedule is critical to what we're doing," Darling said. "Our goal is to win the Big Sky Championship this year and I feel that our non-conference schedule is competitive and it'll test our team. You want to try and win early, but every conference game is critical and it'll be a matter of getting the team up to speed by the holidays so you can hit the ground running in conference play."