Last year a young Eastern Mennonite women's basketball team got on a roll and finished with a 22-4 record, tied for second-best in program history. Yet the Royals lost in the ODAC Tournament semifinals and missed out on the NCAA Tournament.
Coach Kevin Griffin knew he had a talented crew last winter, but with just three upperclassmen on the roster, Griffin didn't expect the explosion of wins his team earned.
"I was very surprised considering how young we were and what we had lost," he said. "Things just sort of fell into place."
This year the eighth-year mentor returns his top six players, including all five starters. Griffin acknowledges that returning core triggers an extra layer of pressure.
"It means that expectations are high from ourselves and from others," said Griffin. "And it means that we do have experience, which is why those expectations are so high. I think everybody expects we're going to be good and so there's a pressure. Our schedule is a lot tougher this year, but I think that pressure and schedule can be a good motivator. At the end of the day it's basketball and we just need to go play, try to improve and see what happens."
The Royals return three All-ODAC performers, each of who are entering their junior seasons this year. Forward Bianca Ygarza (Conestoga, PA/Penn Manor) exploded to a team-best 14.5 points and 7.3 rebounds, all the while coming off the bench. She was named All-ODAC First Team and All-South Region Third Team by D3hoops.com.
Whether or not Ygarza starts this year doesn't appear to be an issue to either the player or the head coach.
"The only planned change is that Bianca plays more," Griffin said of his dynamic player who averaged 22.9 minutes last year. "It's hard to define her role. She just finds a way to score, and finds the ball and rebounds. We need to find more ways to get her the ball and more minutes without wearing her down."
Kala Yoders (Myerstown, PA/Eastern Lebanon County), the ODAC Rookie of the Year two seasons ago, landed on the All-ODAC Second Team as a sophomore, averaging 12.1 points and 6.7 rebounds. Small forward Steph Rheinheimer (Manheim, PA/Lancaster Mennonite) hit 39% of her three-point shots and earned Third Team honors with 11.3 points per game.
Starting guards Keyla Baltimore (Bristow, VA/Brentsville District) and Alisa Brown (Dumfries, VA/Forest Park) return, as does Shakeerah Sykes (Dumfries, VA/Forest Park). Baltimore transferred to EMU last year after one season at Bluefield and ended up among national leaders with a 2.4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Brown scored 6.7 a game and became a harassing defender, while Sykes contributed 6.2 points and 4.8 boards in her first season.
Jennifer Blankenship (Bassett, VA/Bassett) will be the lone senior on the team this time around and is joined by sophomores Nora Osei (Springfield, VA/West Springfield) and Raiven Patterson (Pulaski, VA/Pulaski County). Osei had 3.7 rebounds a game as a reserve frontliner, while Patterson tantalized fans with flashy offense and defense in just eight games early in the season. Sharpshooting Marla zumFelde (Goshen, IN/Bethany Christian) hurt her knee in the offseason and will spend this year out of uniform as a student assistant.
Griffin said the experience of his returners is evident.
"Hopefully they are smarter and are more confident and more skilled and realize the opportunity that is in front of them," he said. "I do think we're in better shape and the confidence of some of the kids that played a lot last year is a lot higher, either because they put in a lot of work (in the offseason) or because they played a lot last year. So it's made a difference in how they've played at the start of practices."
Adding to the returning core, Griffin brought in another athletic recruiting class to give his team much-needed depth for their up-tempo style. Two of the newcomers are younger sisters of All-ODAC honorees for the Royals.
"I think that Alicia Ygarza (Conestoga, PA/Penn Manor) will help us athletically," Griffin said, "with her ability to defend and her strength. Shannan Thompson (Glen Allen, VA/Hermitage) will help as an athlete and can really shoot the ball. And Jess Rheinheimer (Manheim, PA/Lancaster Mennonite) does a lot of things well. She can score and has a very high basketball IQ."
Other new players include: Kayley Argenbright (Fishersville, VA/Wilson Memorial), Morgan Holbert (Stuarts Draft, VA/Stuarts Draft), Kianna Vivanco (Woodbridge, VA/Garfield) and sophomore Belmont Abbey-transfer Chanel Shands (Dale City, VA/Forest Park).
Griffin said that new wave of faces will pay dividends throughout the year.
"I hope we can just play faster," he said. "We should have someone to provide relief at every position so some of those kids aren't playing as many minutes, which will be really helpful come January and February."
Despite all the returners and talented newcomers, Griffin still needs to replace one key aspect – leadership, which had been provided by now-graduated Marla Young.
"I don't think we're going to (replace Young's leadership)," said Griffin. "It will be by committee. What Marla brought you can't measure in terms of statistics. In terms of a person and vocal leader, we're sorely going to miss her. Just her work ethic was an example for everyone. I'm hoping some of our returners will step up and be a little more vocal. I think they will lead by example in terms of work ethic and recognize the value of what Marla brought and fill that void."
That leadership void will be tested early, as the Royals start the year with a very tough stretch of six games, including contests against tradition powers Kean and Ferrum, nationally-ranked Mary Washington and potentially Messiah, as well as at ODAC heavy weights Virginia Wesleyan and Guilford. The Marlins tied EMU with an ODAC-best record of 17-3 last year, while Guilford finished third before winning the ODAC Tournament.
Both Eastern Mennonite and the Quakers received votes in the two "official" preseason national polls from D3hoops.com and Women's Basketball Coaches Association.
Griffin said the impressive non-conference slate should benefit his women.
"I'm hoping what takes place there is that we find ourselves," he said, "and that we are tested but not crushed, so that when we hit the rest of our league schedule we are prepared. We have talked a lot about preparation this year, so the point is that 1) we needed games and 2) we needed to be better prepared."
The Eastern Mennonite women open the year at the Messiah Tip-Off Classic, taking on Kean on Nov. 16, followed by either Messiah or Methodist the following day. The Royals host Ferrum on Nov. 24 for their home opener.