The Fort Hays State University women’s basketball team will jump on a flight Monday as they get their 2017-18 campaign underway in exhibition fashion.
However, it’s not the typical run-of-the-mill road trip most teams in NCAA Division II are used to.
That’s simply because their destination is more-or-less the mecca of college women’s basketball.
Having the chance to play against what Tiger coach Tony Hobson labeled “the greatest dynasty in all of college sports,” FHSU will take on the University of Connecticut at 6 p.m. (CDT) Wednesday at the XL Center in Hartford, Conn.
It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for not only the players on this year’s club, but FHSU’s 10th-year head coach and the staff.
“I just want to see it and witness it up-close,” Hobson said of going head-to-head with legendary Husky coach Geno Auriemma. “We’ll take advantage of it, and get out of it what we can.”
That’s the reason for going, Hobson said. The Tigers will treat it as a bonding trip full of sights and lasting memories.
Especially from a basketball standpoint, once FHSU takes the floor for the first time this season.
The learning won’t stop, however, at just playing UConn in exhibition action. The early season, Hobson said, is going to be a drawn out learning process for his somewhat young group.
The Tigers return just six players who saw considerable action in the 22-8 campaign a year ago. And three of them are just sophomores, one of whom might be lost of the season due to injury.
Maddison Mittie, who averaged 16 minutes, scoring 6.9 points per contest, suffered a knee injury during the spring. Her season availability will be determined possibly by Thanksgiving, Hobson said.
Of the six returners, the lone senior is Emma Stroyan and two are juniors in Carly Heim and Tatyana Legette.
So FHSU will work several freshmen in the mix as the season rolls on.
“We’ve got a bunch of freshmen and sophomores that are going to get big-time minutes,” Hobson said. “Anytime you have that going on at this level, there are going to be some growing pains. We’re going to experience that.”
However young, the Tigers returning core is solid. Legette, a 5-foot-10 junior from Topeka, was the Tigers’ second-leading scorer a year ago at 9.6 points per contest and was the top rebounder at 7.6 per night. In addition, sophomore Kacey Kennett returns. A 6-foot guard from Olathe, Kennett averaged 8.7 points per night.
“She was a mature basketball player for a freshman,” Hobson said. “She played with more savvy than most freshmen. She’s improved and looks like a seasoned veteran.”
Offensively, Hobson said, is not where the growing pains are going to be the most evident. It’s when the Tigers are on defense where they might struggle, especially early. FHSU went from being quick up front with the likes of Niki Kacperska and Taylor Chandler — both standing 5-4 — to possibly having sophomore Taylor Rolfs (5-11) and freshman Whitney Randall (5-10) out front. The Tigers, across the board, will be much taller, but probably a bit slower than in the past.
The Tiger coach even shuddered a bit at the fact his club might be better suited running some zone defense.
“We’re so much bigger than we have been on the wings that defensively, we’re struggling,” Hobson said. “We have been smaller and really quick for a long time.”
The Tigers also likely will rely heavily on Carly Heim. The junior from Hoxie made big strides from her freshman to sophomore season, and filled in at times at the point behind Kacperska. Heim looks to take on the role full time this season.
“Carly, she’s like our rock right now,” Hobson said of the soft-spoken Heim, who played 22 minutes a game last season and scored nearly eight points per night and had 31 steals. “She sets such a great example. She’s taking over everything we wanted her to.”
Also returning, sophomores Belle Barbieri and Robin Rhitsema (6-0 and 6-2), along with 5-7 sophomore guard Lindsey Shupe, return after seeing minimal time as freshmen. Redshirt freshman Kyleigh Kasper and three true freshmen join the team this season.
“The only question right now are the big kids,” Hobson said, adding they’ll do some experimenting early with Barbieri, Stroyan and Rhitsema in the post.
After facing UConn, the Tigers will be in Manhattan on Nov. 6 to face Kansas State at Bramlage Coliseum in exhibition, then begin the season Nov. 10, spending two days in Fayette, Iowa. The first home game is Nov. 17 against UC-Colorado Springs.
The Tigers were picked to finish fifth in the MIAA in the poll released last week. MIAA play beings Nov. 30 in Hays against Missouri Southern State University.