With four returning players who logged big minutes last year, a couple of sophomores looking for expanded roles and a six-player freshman class, Fort Hays State women’s basketball coach Tony Hobson couldn’t have asked for a better mix of youth and experience entering the 2020-21 season.
"I think we have, if not a perfect mix, than pretty close," Hobson said. "... You don’t ever want to be all freshmen, and you don’t ever want to be all seniors because then the next year you’re going to be without much experience. So I kind of like the mix."
Fort Hays will have to replace one of the winningest senior classes in program history, losing standouts Kacey Kennett, Belle Barbieri, Taylor Rolfs and Lanie Page from last year. FHSU went 23-7 (13-6 MIAA) last season and earned a regional berth but the NCAA Tournament was canceled because of the pandemic.
But the Tigers welcome back three experienced seniors in point guard Jaden Hobbs, forward Whitney Randall and guard Madison Mittie.
Hobbs, a transfer from Oklahoma State, was a third-team All-MIAA pick in her first year with the Tigers last season. She led FHSU with 12.6 points and 4.7 assists per game.
"The coaches and the players from last year did a really good job of making me feel as comfortable as possible just from Day 1 of stepping on campus," Hobbs said. "I think it made me ready to approach senior season. To get to do this with the two seniors by my side, I think we’re all three excited for this."
Hobson expects Hobbs to build off a strong finish to her junior season.
"She started really taking charge the last six or seven games," Hobson said. "I think sometimes it takes somebody coming into a new program (time) getting used to everybody, getting comfortable. We had a bunch of seniors on the team, she’s a really unselfish player so she didn’t want to take too many shots or those things, and she did a good job last year.
"I think you’ll see her maybe take charge a little bit earlier this year. Just a good floor leader. I don’t really need to tell her much out on the floor. She’s a really intelligent player and understands the game."
Randall started 20 games and averaged 9 points and 4 rebounds last year, despite playing with an injury for much of the season.
"I expect her to have a really good year," Hobson said. "To me, she looks a good notch better right now than she did during the year last year. Part of that was she was battling an injury most of the year. I think she’s playing with real confidence, shooting the ball better than I’ve seen her.
"I expect her to score a little bit more, mainly because we need it. We lost a lot of scoring, so I think she’ll step up in that category a little bit."
Mittie has played a key role off the bench for the Tigers.
"As far as somebody that will hit the open shot, she’s as good as anybody that we got," Hobson said. "When you have a passer like Jaden who’s going to draw a lot of attention, Maddie’s going to get a lot of open shots, or somebody is.
"I think her floor game is pretty good, she rebounds her position pretty well. She’s a good halfcourt defender, and then she can make that open shot. She’s a valuable player to us that has a lot of experience, played in a lot of big games. We look for her to be a big contributor this year."
Junior forward Cydney Bergmann averaged 7.2 points and 3.1 rebounds in nearly 18 minutes a game off the bench last year. Other returners include junior guard Hailey Walker, sophomore guards Allison McFarren and Lauryn Reither, and junior forward Cassidy Haufler.
Hobson has big expectations for his freshman class, comprised of 5-foot-8 guard Sydney Golladay (Fremont, Neb.), 6-foot guard Carly Thompson (Greenwood Village, Colo.), 5-11 guard Katie Wagner (Maize High School), 5-8 guard Emma Ruddle (McPherson High School), 6-3 forward Olivia Hollenbeck (Lincoln, Neb.) and 6-1 forward Jessie Sallach (Callaway, Neb).
"If it’s not my best class, I’m trying to think if I’ve ever had a better freshmen class, at this point," Hobson said. "It’s better to judge them probably when they’re seniors and see how much better they get. But all of them are good players, and I expect them to all contribute, if not this year, it won’t be long."
"I think as a group, they’re a really competitive class," Hobbs said of her impression of the freshmen. "I think that’s what going to help us the most, just how competitive they are. When it becomes crunch times in games, it’s nice to be able to count on freshmen coming in and competing every night and giving you their all, just like anyone should on this team."
Hobson said the Tigers will be able to play faster this year.
"The most noticeable thing about is that we’re way faster, more athletic" he said. "And we should be able to go up and down a little bit better as far as defensive pressure in the full court. We’ve been great defensively the last couple years, but it’s been in the halfcourt, that’s what suited us. I think we would be more conducive to maybe extending the defense if we choose to.
"I think we shoot it as good as we ever have," he added. "We have several new kids that can really shoot it."
Hobbs said the Tigers have been able to focus despite the uncertainty from the pandemic.
"I think we’re just trying to focus on taking it day by day," Hobbs said. "We do a COVID screening every day for us to be able to practice and things like that. Our mindset right now is we’re going to have a season, we’re going to have a postseason and we have to focus on preparing ourselves for that each day that we approach."
All MIAA teams are scheduled to play a 22-game slate of conference games. The Tigers are set to open with Washburn on Nov. 19 at Gross Memorial Coliseum.
"I’d like that to have some kind of outside competition before we start in conference, but that’s the hand we’re dealt and we’ll deal with it the best we can," Hobson said. "But it’s going to certainly be different than what we’re used to. We’ll just make the best of it and try to get better for that first week the best we can."
"Honestly, I think we’re just happy to get to play this season," Hobbs said. "I think its important for us to be prepared and prepare the freshmen because we are going straight into conference. There’s no gimmies in this league. It’s highly important that we prepare ourselves now for when we get to the games."