Women's Basketball Team Set to Tip-Off Season
FORT MYERS, Fla. – With three cornerstones of the program’s foundation now gone, and only four returning players from last year’s 21-9 team that barely missed the postseason, it might appear that the Florida Gulf Coast University women’s basketball team may be in a rebuilding mode. Not so fast.
While it’s true that all-time leading scorer Andrea Clarke and three-year performers Megan Jones and Jenn Santana are gone, the Eagles four returnees each started at least eight games a year ago. And three of those returnees are seniors. Toss in a talented group of 10 newcomers, including seven transfers, and you can see why fourth-year head coach Karl Smesko has reason to smile.
FGCU has won 69 games in the first three years of the program’s history and Smesko feels this team is capable of building on the past success.
“Our new players are blending in with our veterans really well,” said Smesko. “Some players take a little longer to pick up the system, but in terms of team chemistry, they are together and feel like a team. That puts ahead of the game, for sure.”
In each of the past two seasons, the Eagles have struggled out of the gate and been forced to rally down the stretch. FGCU won 13 of its final 17 games a year ago while chasing one of eight spots in the NCAA South Region. Two years ago, the Eagles won 11of their final 13 games.
With 17 consecutive South Region contests to open this season, FGCU must avoid its now customary slow start. As a Division II independent, FGCU must be among the top eight ranked teams in NCAA Division II South Region play to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA championship tournament.
“We have a goal, no doubt about it,” said Smesko. “We’ve made it very clear that we expect to be in the NCAA regionals. Last year we were on the other side of the bubble. This year we plan to get in it, not hope to be in it.”
Leading the list of returnees is 5-foot-5 senior guard Candy Myers (Liepsic, Ohio), a pre-season honorable mention All-America selection by the Division II Women’s Bulletin. Myers, the team’s second leading scorer a year ago at 13.3 ppg, finished sixth nationally in three-point field goals made per game (3.0) and eight nationally in three-point field goal percentage (44.7%) in 2004-05.
5-foot-7 senior guard Ebonie Halliburton (East St. Louis, Ill.) was third on the team in scoring at 10.5 points per game and added 4 rebounds per game while starting 17 of 29 games played. 5-foot 10 senior forward Alex Kwiecinska (Mississauga, Ontario) averaged 7.3 points and 4.9 rebounds while starting 13 of her 30 games played.
Joining Myers and Halliburton in the backcourt will be 5-foot-6 sophomore Sarah Franco (Sarasota, Fla.), a transfer from the University of Tampa, and freshman Princess Stewart (Deerfield Beach, Fla.), a 5-foot-7 point guard who was a first-team Class 6A selection a year ago. Junior transfer Alex Nelson (Edinburgh, Scotland) can play either guard or forward at 5-foot-8. Junior point guard Chelsea Dermyer (Fort Collins, Colo.) was expected to challenge for a starting position but miss the season after suffering a pre-season knee injury.
Sophomore Jessica Hathaway (Fort Wayne, Ind.), who started eight games as a true freshman before suffering a knee injury last year, joins Kwiecinska as the returnees in the front court. The Eagles only have three true post players and only have two players taller than 5-foot-11. But 5-foot-11 Hathaway will get help from junior transfer Katie Schrader (Fort Collins, Colo.), a talented post player at 5-foot-11.
Junior transfers Shonna Soeby (Walhalla, ND), a 6-foot-0 forward, and Jen Conely (Warren, Minn.), a 5-foot-9 forward, teamed up to lead Lake Region State to the national junior college national tournament and a 30-4 mark last winter and will be counted on heavily at both ends of the floor.
Alex Axam (Lake Worth, Fla.), a 5-foot-9 freshman, and Candace Carreras (Boca Raton, Fla.), a 5-foot-10 freshman, should gain valuable experience. Junior Devon Watts (Somerville, Texas) is a 6-foot volleyball standout making the transition to the hardwood.
Although 12 of the first 15 games are at home in Alico Arena, where the Eagles are 35-5 over the past three seasons, FGCU will play nine of its final 13 games on the road in January and February. In all, FGCU will play 12 teams that it faced in 2004-05.
“We have a lot of quality home games this season,” said Smesko. “It will be a challenging schedule for us, especially playing a number of teams that got the best of us a year ago. But I still expect us to be a very strong team this year.”
The Eagles will open up the season with the 4th Annual Hillmyer-Tremont Tip-Off Classic at Alico Arena on November 19 against the University of Puerto Rico at Bayamon at 7 p.m. Florida Tech and the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez will also compete in this year’s Tip-Off Classic.
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