It took a bit to click – a new head coach, players working into new roles.
But the Fort Lewis College women’s basketball team ended the regular season by winning 10 of its last 11 games to land in the NCAA Tournament for the sixth consecutive year and finish with an 18-11 record.
And in Year 2 of the Jason Flores era, the Skyhawks will try to click from the get-go, starting Saturday against Northern New Mexico, their NAIA neighbors from Española, N.M.
Not that there aren’t changes. FLC lost starting point guard Katerina Garcia and combo guard Alex Easterbrook to graduation and added nine new players to the roster.
But the Skyhawks are more familiar with Flores’ system and expectations, and players who saw a great increase in minutes a year ago are more prepared for the workload.
“We’ve got a number of returners that we’ve been with each other for a solid year, going on a second year,” Flores said Friday. “So, in terms of that, we’re ahead of where we were.”
The Skyhawks return their two leading scorers – seniors Ashley Kuchar and Erika Richards – from a season ago. Both long have been mainstays in the FLC rotation dating back to their freshmen seasons, with Kuchar averaging 12.1 points and Richards 11.5 a season ago.
Joining them in the backcourt will be Erin Curry. The lefty point guard was a key reserve a season ago, playing 14.8 minutes per game off the bench. Now, the starting role is hers to run with after the departure of primary ballhandlers Easterbrook and Garcia.
“A little nerve-wracking at first, but it’s good,” Curry said. “It’s gotten me more confident.
“Just being that leader right off the bat. I had to learn how to do that, but (I’m) getting there.”
Kuchar also will have greater responsibility in terms of running the offense when Curry goes out, something the senior hasn’t had to do much of in her four years.
“I have to go back to my high school days,” Kuchar said of her ballhandling days. “I had a rough couple exhibition games, but I think I’ll be all right. It just takes a little bit to adjust and relearn some things.”
FLC went small with its starting lineup last year, in part because its most experienced players were guards. But expect the Skyhawks to start bigger this season, with Kaile Magazzeni stepping into the starting lineup at power forward alongside center Christie Groh.
The move should benefit Richards, who was the de facto starting power forward a year ago in what essentially was a four-guard lineup, meaning she often had to guard bigger players on the defensive end.
“Kaile being 6-foot, 6-1 gives us a bigger lineup right off the bat because that bumps Erika to the three (small forward). ... We are a little bit bigger, and Erin’s got some quicks, so hopefully we don’t lose ... our pace will remain the same,” Flores said.
Groh, also a senior, will be looking to build off her breakout season from a year ago, when she went from a sporadically used reserve to starting center and averaged 10.8 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. She performed well in the exhibition season, scoring 11 points, second only to Richards’ 20, and pulling in 12 rebounds against Arizona last weekend.
“I just think, again, probably confidence-wise. Last year, it was she had something to prove in terms of not ever having played (heavy minutes) before,” Flores said. “And (she) grew accustomed to putting up pretty consistent numbers.”
Mary Brinton should provide critical minutes as the first big off the bench, as well, after coming on strong late last season, including a 25-point, nine-rebound performance in a win over Western State in March.
Forward Megan Prins and guard Kylie Santos also return and likely will have more expansive roles off the bench in 2013-14, with Prins providing quality size at 6-2 and Santos bringing a solid shooting stroke.
The rest of the bench rotation likely will be made up of newcomers. Michelle Turner and Kate Bayes likely will see action in a reserve capacity, as well.
“We’re deeper than we were last year, which is nice. ... I think that’s a big difference right now,” Flores said.
With the pieces seemingly set, it’s time to get the journey toward what FLC hopes is a seventh-consecutive NCAA appearance underway.