The EMU women's basketball team is entering a new era.
Precious few players remain from the program's three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances from 2013-15, but Coach Kevin Griffin, now in his 12th season as the Royals' mentor, is optimistic that with the talent in front of him, his team can rebound quickly.
"It's been a blast," Griffin said on the recent years. "Knowing that we were going to be competitive no matter who we played, and that we had quality players and people representing us on and off the basketball court has been special."
Two years ago, the women graduated five seniors and this past season, the class of three seniors included two-time ODAC Player of the Year Jess Rheinheimer.
"It goes without saying that Jess had scoring and rebounding and leadership," Griffin stated. "I'm not sure we'll ever replace that even though we'll try. I think her presence is still felt with this year's team. We also lost two other starters and another key component due to injury, so we have a very young group that will be thrown into the fire, whether they are ready or not."
With the personnel losses, the Royals' offense will be a bit different from the past two years, although it will have a familiar look.
"We're going to try to play fast. We're still going to attack the basket and pressure people. That won't change," explained Griffin. "It's just that how we try to score is going to be more spread rather than just going through one person to be the focal point, which is really how we played prior to Jess' junior year - by committee."
The spread of offense is not unknown the women. In the 2013-14 season, seven players averaged between 6.7 and 14.0 points per game and in 2012-13, eight players averaged between 6.9 and 9.7 points per game.
"We are going to pressure the ball, and just limit people's scoring chances," Griffin said on the defensive state of the Royals. "We'll have to rebound the ball and not give people second chances, which will be tough since we are undersized at several positions. So we'll have to try to scrap, hustle and really make people uncomfortable."
Despite the youth, there are a few returning upperclassmen that Griffin will look towards to lead the way for the underclassmen.
The only senior for the Royals is center Jonae Guest (Dumfries, Va./Potomac). The veteran played in all 26 games for the Royals last season and averaged 6.0 rebounds and 5.5 points per game.
"I think Jonae finished the year really well. She finished strong," Griffin said. "So we're expecting her to be better this year than she was last year, and not just because she's a year older."
Myneshia Walker (Freeman, Va./Brunswick) returns as a junior guard. She averaged 10.7 points and shot 38.9% from outside the arc.
"Myneshia will have an increased role," Griffin added. "She's as good of an all-around guard as there is in this league. She defends, she works hard and she can score in a variety of ways."
Junior guard Jazmine Carter (Fairfax, Va./Oakton) played in all 26 games for the Royals last year while averaging 4.9 points per game.
"Jazmine has a lot of experience, playing a lot of positions and a lot of minutes. We'll do the same thing with her this year. She'll do a lot of things for us and play a lot of minutes," Griffin said.
Shaneyea Conwell (Newport News, Va./Warwick) will look to improve in her sophomore season. The center played in all 26 games as a freshman, starting 21, and averaged 5.2 points and 5.5 rebounds.
"We need Shaneyea, who has a vocal presence, to also be a physical presence," said Griffin. "She brings rebounding, toughness and leadership to this group."
Sophomore Jourdyn Friend (Richmond, Va./Meadowbrook) (3.0ppg, 3.8rpg) is the only other returner who played in more than half of EMU's games last year.
Griffin expects a lot from each of his roster of 13 players, including his five freshmen.
"I think Lexi Deffenbaugh (Fishersville, Va./Wilson Memorial) is growing every day in confidence and is really doing some good things for us," Griffin said. "Chloe Roach (Leesburg, Va./Tuscarora) is going to make an impact on both ends of the floor. She's a terrific athlete. And Chrissy Delawder (Broadway, Va./Broadway), who has a lot of experience in high school in winning and winning big time, brings a lot to our team in terms of basketball IQ and shooting the ball."
The early part of EMU's season has tough opponents, as the Royals open with No. 15 Christopher Newport. The young Captains advanced to the Sweet 16 in last year's NCAA Tournament.
"They're always good, but this year they'll be terrific," Griffin added.
The women also see an increase in home games.
"We do like the fact that we get more home games this year than last year, and we hope that helps our women and we get some support," Griffin said.
EMU was picked seventh in the ODAC Preseason Poll, but Griffin puts that aside and looks at his team individually.
"I don't put a whole lot of stock in preseason predictions," Griffin added. "I think our league this year will be as good as it's been in a long time. From the bottom up, our conference has really improved. I think based on what everybody is looking at in terms of what we've lost, I think we're picked about right. Based on what I see, I think we have a lot of potential, and if our ladies can grow up quickly we will be fine."
Though the Royals are in a new era, Coach Griffin continues to push forward the idea of family and the improvement they will make over the course of the season.
"I'm not worried about, or even talking about, winning an ODAC Championship, although that may be the ultimate goal," Griffin stated. "We are going to focus on every day we're going to compete, every day we're going to get better, and then we'll see what happens."
The Eastern Mennonite women's basketball team welcomes Christopher Newport this Saturday at 5:00pm for the season opener.