Preseason polls aside, EMU's basketball women are primed for a big season. But in the mind of their coach, success will come from one key factor.
For Coach Kevin Griffin, a four-time ODAC Coach of the Year in 12 seasons leading his alma mater, being picked first in the ODAC Preseason Poll doesn't matter. Neither does a big-time recruiting class. Or even a bevy of returners.
Griffin takes the long view and wants his team simply to work to improve every day.
"The preseason ranking means nothing," said Griffin. "I haven't mentioned it much at all to our players, although they are aware of it. I am not going to let that be our focus, we are going to work hard to improve daily in the process and trust the results will be positive."
The Royals lost just one senior from last year's 17-8 team, which tied for third in the ODAC with a 12-4 mark in league play. But the loss is a big one in All-ODAC center Jonae Guest, who turned into a double double machine in the second half of the season and averaged 11.4 points and 9.0 rebounds.
"We don't replace a Jonae," Griffin explained. "She was so valuable in terms of her play, both scoring and rebounding. Jonae provided so much for our team in terms of her life, her example, her energy and her smile, those things are really tough to replace."
A key component for Eastern Mennonite this year will be improved depth. Along with nine returners from last year's team, the Royals brought in a talented recruiting class of 10 newcomers to go with another regular rotation player returning from an injury.
Griffin said that depth should allow him to execute his style of play to an even greater degree than in years past, especially as the team gets into a tough conference schedule.
"We will try to pressure the ball defensively and play with energy, compete and get after people," he said. "We will mix some defenses up but mostly try to speed teams up. We are hoping our depth will help us as the year unfolds and teams get tired in January and February."
Highlighting the returners is All-ODAC guard Myneshia Walker (Freeman, Va./Brunswick). Walker is one of just two seniors on the team, and averaged 14.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.8 steals last year when she landed on the All-ODAC Second Team.
Also back are starters Lexi Deffenbaugh (Fishersville, Va./Wilson Memorial) and Jess Washington (Chesapeake, Va./Great Bridge). Deffenbaugh put up 8.2 points and 2.8 assists per game, adjusting to a new role as the team's point guard. The 5-10 Washington grabbed 7.6 rebounds per outing to go with 6.7 points.
Chrissy Delawder (Broadway, Va./Broadway) played in all 25 games as a freshman, averaging 6.8 points. Jourdyn Friend (Richmond, Va./Meadowbrook) and Tierra Cochraham (Alexandria, Va./Thomas A. Edison) each averaged around 10 minutes per game last year, while Brianna Zook (Harrisonburg, Va./Broadway) joins Walker as the lone seniors on the team.
"We have some returners who have improved and gotten in better shape and have worked," Griffin said. "Hopefully their work and being a year older will make them and us better."
Lindsey Krisak (Alexandria, Va./Thomas A. Edison) returns to the court this fall after suffering a season-ending knee injury in last year's preseason. She averaged 8.9 points and 2.3 assists as a gun-slinging backup point guard in 2015-16.
Griffin said he was happy for Krisak as a person to see how she worked back from a tough injury, knowing also that his team would benefit from the return of Krisak as a player.
"Having Lindsey back is huge, both for her and for us," he explained. "Lindsey is such a talent in terms of her shooting ability as well as understanding of how to play. Lindsey is one of the smartest players we have ever had here and she makes the people around her better."
Competing for a starting spot inside will be freshman Cheyenne Suamataia-Teo (Stafford, Va./Mountain View), giving an athletic 6-0 post presence. Along with Suamataia-Teo, Royals fans can expect a number of new faces on the floor in 2017-18.
"We have a lot of talented new players," commented Griffin. "Taylor Baltimore (Bristow, Va./Battlefield), Emily McCombs (Culpeper, Va./Eastern View) and Hope Simmons (Dayton, Va./Turner Ashby) are all solid guards, and Kailey Landis (Harrisonburg, Va./Broadway) can do everything. I'm leaving people out but honestly we have so many talented new people."
Baltimore played in 23 games last season for D-II Concord University is the sister of former All-ODAC guard Keyla Baltimore.
Traditionally one of the most up-tempo teams in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference, the Royals were among the top offensive and defensive teams in the league last winter. EMU scored 70.6 points per game while holding opponents to 59.2 points. The women also had a +5.8 rebounding margin and were +2.3 in turnover margin.
Griffin wants his women to stay focused on being a hard-working team.
"My hopes are that we get our group to just sell out and be all in with and for each other, to work relentlessly, live lives of integrity, then become a family. If those things happen, then we are going to have some fun and the by-product will be success."
The Royals open the new year Wednesday at 5:30pm against Lancaster Bible College. The night is a doubleheader with EMU's basketball men, who host Mary Washington at 8:00pm in Yoder Arena.