D2 Women's Early Season Update - Teams Surging and Emerging
Through the first month of the 2022-23 season, Division-II powerhouses such as Grand Valley State, Ashland and Union have jumped out to undefeated starts, putting themselves in prime position to compete for the top seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
While we will likely hear more from these teams as we inch closer to postseason play, the real storylines might be the programs emerging as potential surprises, as well as the players newly rising to stardom.
Montana State University Billings:
Last Season: 17-12 overall, 10-5 in Great Northwest Athletic Conference
This Season: 8-1, 2-0 in Great Northwest Athletic Conference
The Yellow Jackets begin this season without graduate forward and 2021-22 WBCA All-American Honorable Mention Taryn Shelley, sidelined for the foreseeable future with a lower foot injury. That has not stopped head coach Kevin Woodin’s team from achieving early success. Participating in the Malika Sports Challenge in Honolulu from Nov. 11-13, Montana State Billings handily defeated Hawaii Pacific, Chaminade, and Hawaii Hilo by an average of 20.7 points.
During those three wins, MSUB relied on fellow frontcourt mates Dyauni Boyce and Cariann Kunkel, who helped fill the paint void left by the injured Shelley. The junior and senior forwards racked up a combined 12.7 points and 6.5 rebounds a game in the tournament, helping the team earn a plus-8.7 rebound differential in its first three wins. In the backcourt, MSUB has followed the lead of senior and sophomore guards Shayla Montague and Aspen Giese. The two backcourt mates have started each game for the Yellow Jackets this season and are averaging a combined 9.1 points, 4.2 rebounds and two assists.
Kevin Woodin - who became the winningest head coach in program history last season - said the depth and versatility of this year’s roster can help propel the program to its first NCAA Tournament appearance since the 2017-18 season.
“We are playing five people that can all score you 10 points at any given day,” Woodin said.
“Our depth is one of the biggest keys right now for our success. And it’s not only depth, it’s versatility of players. We have several players that can play two or three positions. That’s hard to get as a coach, but when you have it, it's very fortunate.”
Last Season: 12-15, 10-12 in Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference
This Season: 6-2, 2-0 in Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference
After finishing the 2021-22 season with a below-500 record, the Grizzlies jumped out to their best start in program history, exploding with four straight dominating wins to open. Coach Mario Caetano’s team defeated its opponents by an average of 36.5 points a game and netted over 100 points in two of the victories.
The Grizzlies’ historic turnaround can be attributed to their relentless offensive attack. Adams State has propelled itself among the nation’s top-scoring offenses, ranking 15th in the nation with 80.6 points a contest. Spearheading the Grizzlies’ sizzling offense is a quartet of sharp-shooting guards. Backcourt mates Harmanie Dominguez, Elaina Watson, Kiiyani Anitielu and Angelline Nageak are all shooting above 49 percent from the field, with Anitielu leading the way with a team-high 54.5 field-goal percentage. The backcourt’s elite shooting was on full display in their 80-58 victory over Embry-Riddle on Nov. 18, where the four Grizzlies shot 67.3 percent.
Cal State-Dominguez Hills
Last Season: 13-12, 11-8 in California Collegiate Athletic Association
This Season: 6-0, 2-0 in California Collegiate Athletic Association
The Toros experienced a rocky 2021-22 campaign that resulted in a quarterfinal-round exit in the CCAA tournament, but may have found the league’s next budding star along the way. Sophomore forward Asia Jordan turned the heads of many inside the conference last season after she led the team with 13.6 points and 8.5 rebounds a contest, helping her earn a first-team All-CCAA selection. This season, Jordan is well on her way to exceeding that impressive first-year performance, serving as the top contributor on a CSUDH team that has experienced its best start to a season in 14 years. In her first six games, the Lakewood, California native has increased her scoring average to 15 points a contest, highlighted by a 26-point and 11-rebound performance in the team’s 81-66 trouncing of Concordia University of Irvine on Nov. 12.
Joining Jordan inside the paint is fellow-sophomore Amaya Snowden, who averaged 5.8 points and 3.9 rebounds a game last season. Although the 6-foot-1 Snowden missed the first two games this season due to injury, she can complement Jordan on both sides of the ball with her length and versatility, which Jordan says makes for a formidable Toros frontcourt.
“I think we will be really good,” Jordan said. “Amaya is definitely versatile, where she can post up, she can get out and stretch, she can be a stretch four, she can shoot the three. I’m very confident in her. So I can be the pick and roll, she can be the pick and pop. That’ll definitely help offensively. Defensively, we’re both long, so just having that presence in the paint will definitely help us.”
Jordan and Snowden’s ability to dominate on the defensive end will help CSUDH stunt opponents’ offensive production, something that is a fixture in a John Bonner-led team.
“Our defensive discipline is something that is important, and they both bring that,” Bonner said. “That helps elevate our frontcourt a lot. We have some really good guards as well, but I think it starts with our ability to defend and rebound. And that’s something they both do really well.”
University of Texas at Tyler
Last Season: 19-9 Overall, 10-5 in Lone Star Conference
This Season: 7-2, 2-0 in Lone Star Conference
After totaling just three wins in its first two seasons as a Division-II program, UT-Tyler burst onto the scene in 2021-22 under first-year head coach Rebecca Alvidrez, recording 19 wins and coming just one game short of the Lone Star Conference Championship Game. In 2022-23, the Patriots are poised to take another step forward behind a suffocating defense and a similar core of players.
The Patriots return two key starters that helped force their opponents to a conference-leading 33.1 percent field-goal percentage and held them under 60 points a game 15 times. Junior guards Montse Gutierrez and Destini Whitehead will look to assume a much larger role in Alvidrez’s fast-paced system after ranking first and second on the team in total steals in their sophomore seasons. In their first nine games, the two backcourt mates have helped their team force 12.3 steals and hold its opponents to just 35.1 percent shooting.
While the returning backcourt duo will help establish the team’s defensive identity, sophomore guard Lovisa Hevinder should lead the Patriots’ improving offensive attack. Hevinder finished last season with a program second-best 76 3-pointers while also recording the sixth-highest 3-point field goal percentage in program history. These accolades propelled her to be named a Preseason Player to Watch by the Lone Star Conference, the only Patriot to make the list.
Last Season: 18-10 overall, 17-7 in Conference Carolinas
This Season: 5-2, 2-1 in Conference Carolinas
After knocking on the door of an NCAA Tournament berth last year, the Hawks have stifled their opponents on defense this season with relentless pressure and tenacity. Head coach Lenise Stallings' team has forced at least 15 turnovers and held its opponents to under 42 percent from the field in each of its first seven games, which includes its 57-34 trouncing of Virginia State on Nov. 16.
Chowan’s disruptive start on defense has been fronted by graduate forward Destiny Robinson. The Hampton, Virginia, native - who has taken home back-to-back Conference Carolinas Defensive Player of the Week awards to start the season - has amassed 25 blocks through her first five games, a mark that ranks second in the nation. Aside from Robinson, the Hawks’ early season success also falls on senior guard and forward Aniah Patterson and Keibra Hopkins, who have recorded a combined 9.6 points a contest on 42.1 percent shooting.
Last Season: 14-12, 11-10 in Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference
This season: 4-3, 1-1 in Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference
The Fighting Scots have one of the most experienced rosters in the PSAC, returning each of last season’s top-five scoring options. Headlining the list of returners is reigning All-PSAC West first-team selection Rana Elhusseini. In her first seven games, the junior guard ranks fourth in the conference with 19.1 points per game, highlighted by her 23-point, 10-rebound showing in Edinboro’s 67-55 victory over Davis & Elkins on Nov. 16. J
oining Elhusseini among the leaders is sophomore guard Hayley Sims. Sims, who netted 15 or more points in 11 games last season, erupted for 29 points in the team’s season-opening win against Notre Dame of Ohio, only to be matched by a career-high 34-point performance against Findlay on Nov. 22. While Sims and Elhusseini will look to lead Edinboro’s offense the entire season, the Fighting Scots expect to receive some much-needed defensive help in the frontcourt from their Division-I transfer, 5-foot-10 forward Morgan Gentile. The St. Bonaventure transfer has made her presence felt in the paint, recording a team-high four blocks along with 15 steals and 17 rebounds.
South Connecticut State
Last Season: 13-14, 8-10 in Northeast-10
This Season: 5-2, 1-1 in Northeast-10
After reaching the Northeast 10 Tournament semifinals for the first time since the 2017-2018 season, coach Kate Lynch’s squad hopes to get to the next step and compete for a conference championship. The Owls' championship pursuit is fueled by a mix of established veterans and fresh faces. To make up for the loss of graduating forward and Northeast 10 second-team selection Jessica Fressle, SCSU will rely on a trio of returning upperclassmen standouts.
Starting in the frontcourt, 6-foot-1 junior forward Katie Williamson hopes to establish herself as an intimidating inside presence after ranking third on the team in rebounds last season. In just her second game of the 2022-23 season, Williamson made her presence in the paint known, recording a game-high 20 points and three blocked shots. While Williamson is well on her way to dominating the inside, graduate guards Zoë Amalbert and Delaney Connors look to improve an SCSU offense that shot just 38.3 percent from the field a season ago by displaying their shooting and scoring abilities. Last season, Amalbert led the team with 50 3-point field goals on 34.2 percent, while Connors shot 41.8 percent from the field and generated 12.1 points a game. Added offensive production is expected from Lafayette transfer Ashley Evans, who contributed 7.9 points a game in her first seven contests.
Last Season: 11-16, 9-9 in East Coast Conference
This Season: 4-4, 1-1 East Coast Conference
Coach Scott Lagas propelled his team to yet another new level in 2021-22, the Mavericks' winningest season in 24 years. Now it looks for more offense as Mercy failed to reach 60 points in seven of their last 11 games a year ago, with 10 of those ending up as losses. To alter that, the Mavericks will look to senior guard Katie Wall, who can help stabilize the offense through her elite passing and scoring ability. Wall — who enters the season as the ECC Preseason Player of the Year — dominated on all fronts in her junior campaign, leading the team with 16 points, 4 assists and 2.4 steals a game.
The Mavericks can also likely rely on a pair of backcourt-mates to complement Wall. Mercy received an immediate explosion in offensive production from sophomore guard Kayla Halvorsen, who burst onto the scene with a career-high 26 points in as many minutes in the team’s 77-63 season-opening win against American International. Also filling up the stat sheets in the early season is graduate guard Taysha Bender, who has recorded a steady 11.3 points and 4.8 rebounds in the team’s first eight games.
Last Season: 9-17, 8-12 in Gulf South Conference
This Season: 3-4, 1-3 in Gulf South Conference
The Lady Bucs welcome back every player from last year’s team that collected eight conference wins, a mark tied for the second-most in the program’s last six seasons. Leading Christian Brothers’ returners are junior guard Emily Jones, who enters the 2022-23 season as one of the premier players in the Gulf South Conference. In her sophomore campaign, Jones exploded on offense, racking up 20.2 points a game - a number that not only led the conference, but ranked 10th in the nation.
While Jones expects to dominate the backcourt all season, sophomore forward Jeremia Montgomery is poised to make her mark inside. After ranking second and third on the team last season with 12.7 points and six rebounds a game off the bench, Montgomery has already made a much larger impact in a starting role this season. In her first seven games as the starting forward, the Gallatin, Tennessee native recorded 17.1 points and seven rebounds a game on a highly-efficient 57.9 percent shooting. Aside from Montgomery and Jones, Christian Brothers will receive additional help from their only fresh face this season - senior guard Selena Pruitt. After recording 9.8 points and four rebounds a contest in her four seasons with Alabama Huntsville, the Memphis native has replicated that production for coach Jessie Carmack, netting double figures in points in three games so far this season.
Last Season: 15-14, 12-9 in Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference
This Season: 3-5, 1-1 Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference
Following an up-and-down 2021-22 campaign, Jen Conely’s Rangers hope to emerge as a more consistent team behind one of the most prolific scorers in the entire country. Redshirt senior guard Alyssa Nelson returns after reaching the top 10 in the nation in scoring and earning last season’s GLIAC Player of the Year Award. The New Berlin, Wisconsin native, who was also named the 2022-23 GLIAC Preseason Player of the Year, has already carried over her offensive dominance to this season. Through her first eight games, Nelson is averaging 20.4 points and 5.5 rebounds a contest, highlighted by a dominant 38-point performance in the team’s 79-74 loss to Rockhurst on Nov. 12.
While Nelson will dominate the perimeter for the Rangers this season, Parkside may have found a dominant frontcourt player in freshman forward Grace Lomen. In her first collegiate game, the Waukesha Catholic High School graduate showed no signs of nerves, recording a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds along with a team-high three steals against Missouri S&T. Conely said Lomen - who trails only Nelson with 5.4 boards a game - can provide a much-needed inside presence to a team that finished the 2021-22 season with a minus-3.7 rebound differential.
“Obviously she can score, but that was one of the reasons why we really recruited her hard, because we need that help on the rebounding end,” Conely said. “There’s some players that just have that knack, and with Grace, [she] can rebound really well.”
Players to Watch
Madi Stokes - Missouri Southern State University
Stokes has used her unique length and defensive tenacity to dominate inside the paint for three seasons, accumulating two All-MIAA Defensive Team honors and a program-high 131 blocks. This year, the Cassville, Missouri native has helped propel the Lions to an undefeated record and top-five ranking by collecting a team-high 87 rebounds and 19 blocks, along with 9.7 points per game. The redshirt junior’s start is highlighted by her 22-point, 17-rebound, 4-block performance in the team’s 74-59 victory over Henderson State on Nov. 11. She has had some big scoring games, but makes her biggest impact on defense, where she serves as the team’s most formidable rim defender.
“[Defense] is pretty important to me,” Stokes said. “I want the other four players to know that if something were to happen and [they] get beat, I will be there to help them…It's not necessarily that I want to get the block, it’s just that I don’t want the other team to get an easy bucket.”
Brittney Cedeno - Dominican
Cedeno has put the entire nation on notice with her relentless defensive pressure, emerging as the best ball hawk in the country through the first month. The graduate guard recorded 38 steals in eight games, a total that leads the nation. The South San Francisco native’s knack for taking away the ball was evident in Dominican’s 65-53 loss to Sonoma State, where the 5-foot-9 guard intercepted the opening tip for an opening layup and forced a program-record nine steals. To complement her defense, Cedeno has also emerged as a consistent scoring threat for the Penguins, leading the team with 12.4 points per game on 38 percent shooting.
Naia Pulliam - Kutztown
After contributing 8.2 points and 18.5 minutes a game off the bench for the Golden Bears in her freshman season, Pulliam has found a bigger role during her sophomore campaign. Now netting 28.7 minutes a contest, the versatile guard/forward has produced effective play at times on both ends of the floor, recording 8.7 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 10 combined blocks and steals. The Wilmington, Delaware native’s emergence as a five-tool player was on full display in Kutztown’s 62-44 win against Fayetteville State on Nov. 12, where she stuffed the stat sheets with 15 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 blocks, and 2 steals.
Kaia Goode - Le Moyne
Goode smoothly transitioned to the collegiate ranks, emerging as a day-one starter and providing efficient and versatile play to the 5-2 Dolphins. The Bishop Kearney High School graduate -- who was named a 2022 McDonald’s All-American Game nominee -- is one of four Dolphins to average double figures in points over the first seven games. At just 5-foot-4 Goode is a thorn opponent’s sides on defense. Her 26 total steals rank first in the Northeast-10 conference, sixth in the nation.
Kaylee DaMitz-Holt - Drury
With the absence of former WBCA Division-II Player of the Year and two-time WBCA All-American Paige Robinson, Drury entered the season needing a new top-scoring threat. Through eight games, Kaylee DaMitz-Holt has provided. The second-team All-GLVC selection in her first season with the Panthers has emerged as the conference’s most consistent scorers, totaling double figures in points in six games. She also erupted for a career-high 33 points on 7-11 shooting from three against Trevecca Nazarene on Nov. 12.
“One of the things I wanted to get better at was my 3-point range this year,” Damitz-Holt said. “And that’s improved just by how many reps [I put in] over the summer, and getting into this year. It’s my last year, so I’m just trying to make the best of it in every aspect possible.”
While the graduate forward has shined on offense, she also has emerged as an imposing defender. According to head coach Amy Eagan, the 5-foot-5 guard's energy and tenacity makes her one of the team’s “defensive dogs."
“She’s going to set the tone for us every night defensively because of how hard she plays,” Eagan said. “A lot of people don’t want to be guarded by her, because she’s a little pesk. With who we are and how we play, [defense] is where it starts for her.”
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