WOU women’s team ready for change

Ali Nelke guards an opponent during a game last season. This season, she is one of five returners.

Chris Oertell/for the Itemizer-Observer
Ali Nelke guards an opponent during a game last season. This season, she is one of five returners.

MONMOUTH — Growth will be the theme for this year’s group of women, many of them newcomers, that make up the roster of the Western Oregon University women’s basketball team.

WOU Women’s basketball schedule

WOU Women’s basketball schedule

Nov. 29: WOU at Saint Martin’s University, 5:15 p.m. GNAC

Dec. 1: WOU at Seattle Pacific University, 7 p.m. GNAC

Dec. 10: Northwest Christian University at WOU, 6 p.m.

Dec. 19: Notre Dame De Namur University at WOU, 1 p.m.

Jan. 3: Central Washington University at WOU, 7 p.m. GNAC

Jan. 5: Northwest Nazarene University at WOU, 2 p.m. GNAC

Jan. 10: WOU at Simon Frasier University, 7 p.m. GNAC

Jan. 12: WOU at Western Washington University, 7 p.m. GNAC

Jan. 17: University of Alaska Anchorage at WOU, 5:15 p.m. GNAC

Jan. 19: University of Alaska Fairbanks at WOU, 2 p.m. GNAC

Jan. 22: WOU at Concordia University, 7 p.m. GNAC

Jan. 26: WOU at Montana State University Billings, 7 p.m. GNAC

Jan. 31: WOU at Northwest Nazarene University, 7 p.m. GNAC

Feb. 2: WOU at Central Washington University, 2 p.m. GNAC

Feb. 7: Western Washington University at WOU, 7 p.m. GNAC

Feb. 9: Simon Frasier University at WOU, 7:30 p.m. GNAC

Feb. 14: WOU at University of Alaska Fairbanks, 7 p.m. GNAC

Feb. 16: WOU at University of Alaska Anchorage, 2 p.m. GNAC

Feb. 19: Concordia University at WOU, 7 p.m. GNAC

Feb. 21: Montana State University Billings, 5:15 p.m. GNAC

Feb. 28: Seattle Pacific University, 6 p.m. GNAC

March 2: Saint Martin’s University at WOU, 5:15 p.m. GNAC

March 7-9: GNAC Championships, Bellingham, Wa.

March 16-19: NCAA West Regional, TBA

With four freshman, three transfers, and five returners, two of them seniors, this batch of basketball players is young.

It’s easy to look at a young team, many of whom lack experience in Greater Northwest Athletic Conference, and make assumptions, head coach Holli Howard-Carpenter said, making a nod at being picked second to last in the GNAC preseason poll.

Which is why she is leaning on the returners for their leadership and experience; she wants to prove people wrong about her team.

“Leadership is a big thing for us, and the leaders that we have in those upperclassman that are returning, are very steady,” she said. “They’re the type of people who, it doesn’t matter what’s going on, are going to bring it every day. It’s just an example for the younger players.”

One of those returners is Keyonna Jones, a 5-foot-six-inch guard guard from Bothell, Wash., who appeared in 24 games and started in 10 last season. Though only a sophomore, Howard-Carpenter said she got significant minutes in last year, and “really worked her tail off in the spring and summer to get better; and she’s really come out in the past couple weeks, both as a leader but also with her game, so I’m looking for big things from her.”

Jones seems up for that challenge.

“I am so excited for this upcoming season, and I think that I can speak for my teammates when I say that as well. With seven new players, you could say this group as a whole doesn’t have much experience in the GNAC. With this being said, I don’t expect that to affect us the least bit. This group is competitive and hungry. This is a long season that will be filled with lots of ups and downs, but it’s a grind, and I wouldn’t want to have anyone else by my side during it. I can’t wait to show people who this team is, and what we are made of.”

The Wolves’ season opened on Nov. 9 against California State University East Bay, where they suffered a 51-47 loss. They experienced two more losses before swiping a 69-64 victory against Colorado Mesa University on Nov. 17.

GNAC play opens on Nov. 29 at Saint Martin’s University, and Dec. 10 is when the team finally plays a game on their home court in Monmouth, hosting Northwest Christian University.

Traveling for such a long stretch of time can be taxing on the team, so Howard-Carpenter is working to emphasize an attitude within the team that focuses on their game, and not what everyone else is doing.

“Really focusing on us, and not necessarily who we’re playing, but controlling what we can control. Approaching it with the mentality of, we have nothing to lose, and we’re going to go out there and prove people wrong,” she said. “What I want to see in this group, each day, no matter what happens, the next day is a new day, and we’re going to get better. Not having missed opportunities.”

Ali Nelke, a 5-foot-eleven-inch forward from Albany who appeared in 18 games last season, is another returner that Howard Carpenter is looking to. As a senior who has been on the team for four years, she’s excited for her last basketball season with the Wolves.

“I expect intense competition within our conference, and I am excited to challenge our opponents with this inspiring team of young women,” Nelke said. “With so many new teammates, there is a lot of potential, and we can’t wait to turn our long hours in the gym into action on the game floor. Since my freshman year, this program has had the goal of ‘making history.’ One of those goals is to win 12 or more games in a season. The program has not quite reached this in recent seasons. We got close last year, but I believe we can do it this year. I can’t wait for the grind and the reward of hitting that mark.”

Last year, the senior-heavy team was a game away from making playoffs, losing by five against Seattle Pacific. According to Carpenter-Howard, it was the best season they’ve had in over a decade. Having an established culture helped with that, she said.

“I think it was just a matter of, we finally had a full roster that was ours, meaning culture, the kids that we recruited,” Howard-Carpenter said. “And I think that makes a huge difference. You have kids that came here and committed to us, obviously to Western, but to us as coaches, so the buy-in was a lot better, and the experience of having five seniors. I think we were just more experienced.”

The lack of experience hangs over this year’s team, but Howard-Carpenter said she is looking forward to bringing up this group of women.

One of her main goals for this year is to increase the team’s competitiveness.

“Competing and getting better every day,” she said. “We will probably take some lumps, but not letting that discourage us from our motivation on what we set out to do at the beginning of the season.”

Commenting has been disabled for this item.