Like a volcano preparing to erupt, the Eastern Mennonite women’s basketball team has been steadily improving. With another round of talented newcomers bolstering the roster, seventh-year Coach Kevin Griffin is hoping this is the year it all comes together.
“We have the talent to compete,” he said, “but I think seven of the top eight teams (in the ODAC) have three or four starters back which will make it incredibly difficult. I think Randolph-Macon is a clear cut favorite and I don’t know after that. I think if we can foster some confidence early we can be very dangerous by the end of the season.”
The Royals were 15-11 last year including fifth in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference at 13-7. That team was mostly underclassmen. Griffin returns four of his end-of-the-season starters and thinks the experience his players gained in 2010-11 will benefit them this year.
“The returners do have confidence even though we are young again,” he said. “They recognize that a couple things have to happen: if we play really hard and if we play smart, we have enough talent to beat people. Last year we had some success when certain kids began to realize, ‘not only can I compete here, but I can succeed.’”
Two of Eastern Mennonite’s returning starters received ODAC awards in 2010-11. Junior Sara Lamneck (Swoope, VA/Buffalo Gap) earned All-ODAC Honorable Mention honors while averaging 10.0 points and 8.1 rebounds. Fellow front-liner Kala Yoders (Myerstown, PA/ELCO) took over a starting role late and was named All-ODAC Honorable Mention and ODAC Rookie of the Year. She averaged 12.0 points and 6.2 rebounds.
EMU did lose leading scorer Danielle Rittenhouse (13.6 PPG) who did not return to school. Sophomores Stephanie Rheinheimer (Manheim, PA/Lancaster Mennonite) (8.2 PPG) and co-captain Bianca Ygarza (Conestoga, PA/Penn Manor) (6.8 PPG) will also help fill the scoring void.
“What we’re hoping is that work ethic and experience translates into more success,” Griffin said. “Just because you’re a year older doesn’t mean you’re a year better. But those four did a lot last year, so the expectations have been raised for them. They can’t do what they did last year, they need to do more.”
A lot will also be expected from the lone senior, Marla Young (Fishersville, VA/Wilson Memorial), although it might not show up in a box score.
“She has leadership,” said Griffin of his other co-captain. “She has integrity. She is respected for her knowledge when she speaks. She is highly respected for how she carries herself off the basketball floor: in the classroom, on the weekend. Our kids view her as a moral leader as well as a basketball leader.”
The other returners all bring unique strengths to the team. Shandell Taylor (Richmond, VA/Highland Springs) started 14 games at point guard and was second on the team with 49 assists. Skylar Scott (Orange, VA/Orange County) played all 26 games last year and was a lock-down defender. Jennifer Blankenship (Bassett, VA/Bassett) played in 22 games and displays a continual positive intensity.
The incoming recruits obviously bolster EMU’s depth, but will also push some of the starters.
“Collective we feel that group of freshmen has a pretty high basketball IQ as well as their talent, so when things break down they can make plays and play basketball,” he said. “We are going to have a hard time figuring out who plays. We have a lot of good pieces and we’ll have to figure out the role of each piece.”
The Royals were third in the ODAC scoring 69.2 points per game, and Griffin hopes his added depth will allow him to push the tempo more this year.
“The style will be faster,” he said, “so we’re hoping it frees the kids up to play to exhaustion and free up more minutes for other kids. Some of our returners played a lot of minutes last year, but we’re hoping to balance that a little more.”
Another area Griffin hopes to improve is forcing turnovers and turning that into scoring. The women were ninth out of eleven ODAC teams in steals and had a -0.35 turnover margin.
“I think we’ll be better at it simply because we have more kids that can handle the ball well,” he said of turnovers. “I know that we’re young but I feel like the group that we have will hopefully value the ball more and in turn create more havoc in a game whereby we can benefit from causing other people to not take care of the ball or creating turnovers.”
The women won’t have much time to prepare for the 20-game ODAC slate. After hosting a season-opening classic on Nov. 18-19, Eastern Mennonite hits the road to take on Randolph-Macon on Nov. 22. The Royals also travel to Bridgewater and host Roanoke in November, pitting them against the ODAC’s top three teams from last year in the season’s first five games.