A new era of Fort Lewis College women’s basketball is ready to begin.
Led by first-year head coach Orlando Griego, a 2003 Durango High School graduate who was an assistant for the FLC women last year, the Skyhawks will look to improve upon last year’s 13-15 overall record and 9-13 mark in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.
Fans will get a first look at this year’s Skyhawks at noon Friday and Saturday with home games against Western New Mexico and Eastern New Mexico, respectively. RMAC foe New Mexico Highlands will also be in attendance at the conference challenge and will play at 10 a.m. each day in the other matchups against the opponents from the Lone Star Conference.
“We’ve had a great preseason, and the girls have worked extremely hard,” Griego said. “These first two games are regional games, and we’ve been preaching to the girls that every game matters. It really helps us if we can win these games.
“We respect all of our opponents and are facing two really good teams that play extremely hard. It’s important for us and is the start of a huge home stretch for us to start the season.”
Though the FLC games will be a rare early start at noon each day, the players hope they get similar crowd support as the Skyhawks usually see during night games throughout the season.
“It’s super exciting to be here at home, and it’s a great feeling to play in that atmosphere,” said senior forward Kayla Herrera-Flores. “It’s good to kick off our season with energy in our home gym.”
The Skyhawks will actually play their first seven games at home before a Dec. 13-14 trip to South Dakota. For a team with a new head coach and several new faces, it’s a big opportunity to build confidence and establish an identity inside Whalen Gymnasium.
“The mentality we are coming into the games with is that this is our home court, and we want to win,” junior forward Jordan Carter said. “We are not going to let anyone come in here and take it from us. We have a lot of new girls and a new head coach. The old Skyhawks values are still here, but it’s an entirely new team.”
‘Entirely new team’A head coach isn’t the only change for FLC. Young players have grown into upperclassmen and taken on leadership roles, while some key additions through recruiting will give the Skyhawks a spark.
Griego has depth and anticipates every player who suits up to play a key role in the team’s success.
A key returner is Herrera-Flores, previously an All-RMAC talent who struggled a bit last season in a transition to point guard from her usual small forward position. With the growth of some younger players and the addition of Durango High alumna Katrina Chandler, who transferred in after two years at Colorado Mesa, Herrera-Flores is able to switch to her natural position and will also see time at power forward when FLC elects to play a small, fast lineup.
Last year, Herrera-Flores averaged 10.7 points per game to go with 5.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists. But she also had 81 turnovers, nearly 30 more than the previous season. She hopes to get closer to the 13 points per game she averaged two years ago when she shot nearly 41% from the field.
“I’m finally getting into my rhythm like I did my redshirt freshman year,” she said. “It’s just so much fun for me not necessarily having to set up the plays but create, set back screens and do all the little things I love to do. I love trying to fill out that stat sheet.”
Carter has matured, as she is now an upperclassmen. In an exhibition at University of Denver, the junior shined in the post. Griego is expecting her to play at an all-conference level after she averaged 10.1 points and 4.2 rebounds per game last season.
“She had a great summer and preseason, and she’s healthy,” Griego said of Carter. “She put a lot of effort into her craft in the weight room and basketball court. I’m looking forward to her getting down low, getting the ball and working.”
Griego believes Carter and Herrera-Flores will take the RMAC by storm this season along with junior guard Sydney Candelaria, who had several big moments last year as a sophomore when she averaged 10.1 points per game.
Pairing at guard with Chandler will also benefit Candelaria.
“(Chandler) brings a championship mentality,” said Griego, who was an assistant coach at Durango High when Chandler was an all-state-caliber guard for the Demons. “Her experience in college and bringing that here has really helped push us to really compete at a high level consistently. She understands what it is like, and it’s in her DNA to work hard and compete. The girls love having her here.”
Griego said Bailey Osmer, a transfer from Ottawa University in Arizona, will be another key addition to the lineup as well as Phoenix Junior College transfer Chloe Warrington, a forward.
“Fans will instantly see Chloe. She can shoot the ball at a high rate,” Griego said. “(Osmer) plays extremely hard, is aggressive and rebounds the ball. She’s fun to watch.”
FLC will look to seniors Aubre Fortner and Kaitlyn Romero for leadership. Fortner is coming off a knee injury but was a key piece last season when she averaged 6.2 points and 3.2 rebounds per game off the bench. In three previous seasons with FLC, Romero has averaged 3.5 points per game.
“I’ve been here for four years and feel like I should take on a leadership role,” Romero said. “The girls trust me being a senior. Everyone has improved so much from last year and has more experience. The veterans are helping the younger players and vice-versa. Everyone has a chance to have a breakout season with how hard I’ve seen them working. I think we are 10 deep.”
FLC will hope to get sophomore Alyssa Adams back from an Achilles injury that ended her season last year when she started as a freshman. Redshirt sophomore guard Hanna Valencia also showed flashes of brilliance at times last season and will look to make an impact.
Freshmen to keep an eye on are Jordan Vasquez out of Farmington and redshirt freshman Eve Kulovitz. Vasquez has been paired with Carter in the weight room, and the two forwards have pushed each other every day.
“We have people who can find our posts. We can attack the basket. We have shooters,” Herrera-Flores said. “Once it all meshes together, it will be hard to stop.”
Energy, intensity and familyJason Flores, who stepped down as head coach last summer to take an administrative position with FLC athletics, led the Skyhawks for seven seasons. During that time, FLC routinely ranked near the top of the conference in scoring with an average of 68.4 points per game.
Griego thinks this team could routinely score in the 80s and have as many as five or six players score in double figures each night.
“We move the ball really well,” Griego said. “I think we are going to have several people score the ball and will do a better job rebounding and pushing in transition. We’re just running a lot, using athleticism to our advantage to get up and down the floor.”
As a former college player at Southern Utah University, Griego has brought what several players called “energy “ and “intensity” to practices.
“If we don’t live up to expectations, we run it and run it until we get it right,” Carter said. “Coach is pushing us as hard as we can and is expecting us to be mentally tough and more physical on the floor.”
A dialed-in weight training program could pay dividends in tight fourth quarters. Team unity also will be paramount, and that’s something Griego stresses daily.
“(Griego) has this idea of being a family, and it has clicked for us,” Herrera-Flores said. “On and off the court, we love spending time together. I feel we are way tighter, and I hope that chemistry correlates on the court.
“We know what we can expect from each other and know we have great talent. It’s a matter of putting the ball in the hoop more this year.”
After missing last year’s RMAC tournament, FLC is eager to get back. Despite an always competitive conference in which each game is hugely important, the Skyhawks believe they have the talent to even earn a first-round home game in the eight-team tournament this year.
“We want it really bad,” Romero said. “Missing it last year, it made us that much hungrier to get there and have the opportunity to play for a conference championship.”