KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Last year, Fort Hays State women’s basketball coach Tony Hobson saw his top returners take big leaps forward, leading to a 26-win season and NCAA Tournament appearance for the Tigers.
If the Tigers can copy that formula again — with 11 letter winners and four All-MIAA picks returning — Hobson will like his team’s chances in the 2018-19 campaign.
“Last year we were really fortunate because we had six players that returned who had played a lot, and every one of them came back and was better,” Hobson said Tuesday during MIAA Basketball Media Day in Kansas City, Mo. “They were all individually improved and the best way to improve your team is by your individuals to get better.
“We’ll see. They look good right now, but time will tell.”
The Tigers finished 26-7 last year and reached the regional semifinals before falling 66-59 to eventual national champion Central Missouri. They lose just one senior, forward Emma Stroyan, and return every other key piece from last year including All-MIAA picks Tatyana Legette, Carly Heim, Kacey Kennett and Lanie Page.
FHSU hit its stride in the second semester last year, winning 14 of its last 17 games.
“We played our best basketball at the end of the year and I guess that’s what you always try for,” said Hobson, who is entering 11th year at Fort Hays with a 205-92 record with the Tigers. “… I think the main thing is just you have to have quality kids that stay engaged and stay hungry and don’t start looking at what you’re going to do over spring break and just want to win and want to compete and keep going as long as they can. I think if you have kids like that, it makes it a lot easier.”
The Tigers will be led by their two seniors, Heim and Legette.
“We have two seniors on the team this year and they’re probably our two hardest workers," Hobson said. "If you have your best players who aren’t your hardest workers, sometimes that’s an issue. It’s just the other way if they are your hardest workers; everybody just kind of falls in line.”
Heim, who helped lead Hoxie to four straight state championships in high school, has been a model of consistency at point guard for the Tigers.
“It’s nice to have your point guard be a three-and-a-half-year starter,” Hobson said. "Carly is just a very steady player. She’s not terribly flashy, she kind of gives us what we need on a game-by-game basis. She’s a good 3-pointer shooter but sometimes she doesn’t take a lot of them because we don’t need that. She’s a good defender.
“She’s not probably great, great at anything, but she’s way better than average at everything. Just the kind of senior leadership you want, especially at the position because it’s still probably the most important position on the floor.”
Legette was the Tigers’ breakthrough performer a year ago, with the forward from Topeka averaging a team-high 13.2 points and 8 rebounds to earn second-team all-conference honors.
“We’d see flashes of it her first two years,” Hobson said. "Consistent wise, she didn’t give it to us every game (earlier in her career). I think that’s probably the biggest thing coming from high school to college. In high school, a lot of times you have somebody physically outmatched and you can just run over them. It doesn’t happen in college very often so you have to come ready to play every night.
“Last year she was just way more consistent and there was a more consistent effort on her part. I think she also learned how to mentally prepare a little bit better and knew what was coming. She’s comfortable in the situation now and hopefully she’s ready for a good year.”
Heim was the Tigers’ second-leading scorer a year ago with 11.8 points per game while Kennett added 10.6 points a game as a sophomore.
Page, who became eligible at semester last year after transferring from Kansas State, scored 8.7 points a game last year as a sophomore.
“She’s healthier this year and looks better, looks more comfortable around her team and things of that nature,” Hobson said of Page, a 6-foot-3 forward from Wamego. “We would hope that she has a little bit better year than she did last year — not that she was bad. She did fine under the circumstances.”
Guard Taylor Rolfs started 15 games last year as a sophomore and averaged 8.1 points, and Belle Barbieri, Whitney Randall and Whitney Clampitt are back after playing significant minutes off the bench last year.
“We have a good group that’s fully invested in what we’re trying to do,” Hobson said.
Fort Hays State will open the preseason at Kansas on Oct. 28 before traveling to Kansas State on Nov. 1. The Tigers begin the regular season against Southwest Minnesota State on Nov. 9 in Hays.