Women’s basketball team embraces challenge of Division-I schedule

Will Oliver

Will Oliver

Entering its second season at the Division-I level, the SDSU women’s basketball program progresses to a complete D-I schedule. The schedule enables the Jacks a shot at the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.

With a roster infiltrated by new faces, the Jacks can battle inexperience with a few former national champions.

“Last year we had a combination of about half D-I and half D-II [games],” said SDSU’s Head Women’s Basketball Coach Aaron Johnston.

This year the team will see Division-I competition in all but two exhibition games with Minnesota-Crookston Nov. 4 and Upper Iowa Nov. 11. Both games will take place at Frost Arena.

Finishing with a 21-7 record last year, the Jacks went 8-7 against D-I teams. They posted key wins against the University of Kentucky, Oklahoma State, Alabama and Middle Tennessee, who finished the season with an NCAA tournament berth, but fell on the road to Purdue and University of Southern California. Both Purdue and USC earned high seeds in the NCAA tournament.

Johnston believes there is value even in a loss.

“When you can go on the road and play tough to the finish, you improve even in a loss,” he said.

Division-II national champions in 2003, the Jacks went out on top, departing from the North Central Conference and the Division-II level one year after their championship run. Leaving a conference which State dominated in its last years, players noticed in their first D-I season a marked difference in the level of play between the two collegiate stages.

“Division-I schools have really good athletes,” said senior point guard Heather Sieler.

A three-time letter winner, Sieler is a returner from the championship game three years ago.

“The level of competition in D-I is a lot higher,” she said. “You’re not able to blowout teams anymore … Every game is close.”

Sieler, along with center Christina Gilbert, are the only remaining players from the championship team of 2002-2003. They represent two of only three seniors on the 2005 roster. Guard Sara Smith completes the trio.

“It does put a lot more pressure on us,” said Sieler of the seniors’ experience. “We have a big responsibility to lead the team because [the team’s] so young.”

Seven new players join the Jackrabbit squad this season: transfer students Sara Smith, a senior guard from Tamarack, Minn., and Lindsey Wasland, a junior forward from Wallace; and five incoming freshmen decorated with numerous high-school honors and awards.

“[They’re] all really talented players,” said Johnston, SDSU’s second-most victorious coach. He said his team is the “quickest and most athletic team we’ve ever had.”

Johnston said his team can be a great three-point shooting team with the players’ experience on the perimeter. The inside lacks experience, however.

“[There is a] great deal of talent at the post position,” Johnston said. “But not a lot of college experience.”

Working with inexperience is not new to the 2003 Molten/Women’s Division II Bulletin Coach of the Year. Under Johnston’s direction in the 2001-2002 season, the Jacks claimed their first-ever Division II Elite-Eight appearance with only two seniors and nine freshmen.

The young team will try to repeat last year’s home record of 12-1 in Frost Arena. However, away games, will be key, Johnston said.

“What’s made us a successful team is our ability to go on the road and win in other teams’ arenas,” he said.

On the road, the Jacks will encounter, among others: Nebraska, Marquette, Colorado and Wisconsin.

Gilbert said there is an excitement level that goes along with playing big-name schools.

“Last year we played at Purdue; we see the Big Ten Conference on TV all the time,” she said, adding that they do not play timid. “We do a good job of keeping things together.”

In her last season with the Jacks, Gilbert looks for State to compete and do well against any team they meet.

This year marks State’s first eligible season for the WNIT tournament.

“We’re really excited about playing for the WNIT,” said Sieler. “It adds to the intensity.”

Although the Lady Jacks are ineligible for the NCAA Tournament, Gilbert predicts climbing to the top of the D-I ranks in the future.

“Look for SDSU as National Champions as soon as we’re eligible.”

State becomes eligible for the “Big Dance” during the 2008-2009 season.

The Jacks kick off their D-I season at the University of Nebraska on Nov. 19.