BETHANY - This season will feature a far different looking team on the hardwood for the Bethany College women's basketball squad.
After winning 17 games last season, the most in Coach Rebecca Upton's eight-year tenure, and reaching both the PAC and ECAC Tournament semifinals, the Bison graduated five seniors, including four starters. With 62 percent of the team's scoring gone from last year, Upton had to restock the roster with talent and the Bison welcome six freshmen and one sophomore transfer to the program, giving this team a far different look than the one they've had recently.
''The biggest thing in the preseason is trying to figure out who we are," said Upton, the third-winningest coach in program history with 94 victories.
''We obviously lost a lot with graduating five seniors. We only have one player returning in the role they played last year. We have players with minutes under their belts, but they will step into new roles this year. So we are trying to figure out who we are as a team. We have also struggled in years past with consistency, so being consistent in our approach every day has been one of biggest focuses in the preseason.''
The lone starter back and majority of experienced players returning will be on the wing for Bethany this winter. Senior Kayla Taormina has played in 79 career games and was named Honorable Mention All-PAC last year after leading the Bison in scoring (11.7) and shooting 46.5 percent from the floor. She enters her senior year just 169 points away from scoring 1,000 in her career.
Expected to start on the other wing is junior Taylor Verrico. She played in all 29 games last season and averaged 4.6 points and hit 21 3-pointers.
Also returning to play on the wing is senior Rebecca Braithwaite, who played in 17 games a season ago, junior Shelby Persinger, who is currently out because of injury, and sophomore REL Neal, who appeared in seven games last season.
''Kayla is our only returning starter and we are looking for her to step up in her scoring role,'' Upton said. ''She shot a very high percentage last year for a guard, so our focus will be to get her shots early in the game and get her into a rhythm. Not only will we look to her in scoring, but we'll also expect her to continue to play good defense as well.
''Taylor has held a support role, but we are asking her to be more consistent and looking for her to have a breakout season in scoring. She's extremely dangerous from the arc and attacks the rim well. Rebecca has not been a high-minute person in the past, but she should become more of an on-court presence this year. We know she is a really, really good on-the-ball defender, but we'll need her to more aggressive on the offensive end this year.
''Shelby is out right now and we are hoping she can make it back and contribute for us this year. REL made vast improvements through last season, particularly on the defensive end. She is very aggressive in rebounding and we will push her to make improvements on the offensive side this season.''
Four new faces will be battling the upperclassmen for time on the wings this season. Upton says freshmen Sami Schott and Courtney Taylor have very comparable games that should mesh well with the current Bison personnel, while sophomore transfer Kristen Black and freshman Maria Jackson-McBride will bring speed and athleticism to the court.
''Sami and Courtney are very similar in that they played a lot of different roles in high school,'' Upton said. ''They are both smart players who can knock down jumpers and are fundamentally sound. They both have shown potential and we hope at least one of them steps up and fights for time this year.
Bethany will have one veteran and one newcomer running the point this season in junior Skylar Williams and freshman Mikyla Tipton. Williams started 15 of the 29 games she played in a season ago and averaged 3.9 points and had 39 steals. Tipton has shown the Bison coaches some tantalizing ability so far and they are anxious to see her develop through her freshman season.
''Skylar played multiple roles for us last year, sometimes as a starter and sometimes coming off the bench,'' Upton said. "Her strengths are her speed and her defensive pressure and she's worked on creating more scoring opportunities for herself. Mikyla has lots of potential. Not only is she still adjusting to our system, but she's also learning the role of running the offense. She is absolutely relentless as an on-the-ball defender and on offense, can get to the rim in a variety of situations. We are looking for her to have an impact at the guard spot this year.''
The four-spot for the Bison will be similar as one returner and one freshman handle the position. Senior Carly Garneau missed the final 12 games because of injury last season but is healthy again and is expected to be the starter. She averaged 3.3 points and 2.1 boards before the injury ended her season. Freshman Carolena Gasbarro will compliment Garneau with her skill set that features solid moves down low.
''Carly is coming off elbow surgery last year, but is back and healthy this season,'' Upton said. ''She has played a lot of minutes in her career, but is coming into more of a commanding role. We'll look to her to be a consistent scorer and a leader in the post. Carolena is a true freshman who can score in all three ways. She can knock down a jumper, take people to the rim and score with people on her back in the post. She is more of a face-up player in the post, but has crafty moves around the basket.''
The bigger Bison team will show a couple legitimate posts in 6-0 sophomore Monica Westerheide and 5-10 freshman Brianna Nuzum. Westerheide sat out last year, but has been impressive in the preseason, as has Nuzum with her work in the paint.
The main goals for the Bison will not change just because of an inexperienced roster, as Upton says they will still be trying to pick up as many victories as possible. But with such a different composition on the roster this year, getting the team to gel and playing to their roles and expectations will be other objectives this season.
''We will be trying to win as many games as we can like everyone else,'' Upton said. ''But within that, we want to find consistency, not just as a team, but as individuals and have them maintain expectation levels for themselves every day.
''We are very different this year than we've ever been. We're deeper in the post and bigger at the guard spots than we've been. But we're very aware of our differences from past years and we embrace those differences. A lot of people want to use the term rebuild and that's fine. But at the end of the year, I want our players to walk out with no regrets with what they put on the floor and accomplished this year.''