It’s that time of year again.
Football season is in full swing, but basketball season is almost here, and the Western Illinois women’s basketball team has plenty to prove this year after losing some key pieces during the offseason.
“I’m really excited for this season,” said senior Sophie Reichelt. “I’m playing with the four girls that I came in with and this past week has really showed it. Especially going against (Truman State), I was really thrilled with everybody getting in the game and offering a lot. It was nice and I’m very, very excited.”
According to the official Summit League website, the Leathernecks are expected to finish fifth in the conference this year after finishing third last year — behind the South Dakota Coyotes and the South Dakota State Jackrabbits.
“I’m really encouraged by our exhibition games,” said head coach JD Gravina. “There were a lot of unknown and unanswered questions, and in my mind, I thought we answered most of them. I thought our defensive effort is the best that it’s been since I’ve been here. I thought we did well enough on the boards. I think it’s going to be a fun year.”
It all starts with a different approach to the ball. The height advantage may not be as strong for the Leathernecks as it is for other teams, but their speed and ability to move the ball down court will help counter that.
“Yeah, we’re giving up a couple inches to other teams,” Gravina said. “But we have girls that can all shoot, dribble and pass. So we’ll be able to push the ball, and being able to expand the floor because we literally have 13 girls that can shoot the ball.”
This style also increases the team’s chances of forcing turnovers or stealing the ball. Western averaged 8.4 steals per game last season, which led the Summit League.
Western is also adjusting to playing 10-minute quarters this year instead of 20-minute halves.
The Leathernecks took the preseason by storm, beating William Woods 80-41 and Truman State 63-41. Reichelt made her presence known, recording two double-doubles and combining for 23 points and 25 rebounds over the two games.
Another key returning player is senior Michelle Maher, who is Western’s all-time leader in 3-pointers. She scored 26 points over the two exhibition games.
The Leathernecks have plenty of players that know how to shoot the ball and score points. In exhibition, the Leathernecks had four players score double-digit points in the first game, and then had five players score double-digits in the second game.
The Leathernecks also believe they’ve taken a step forward in defensive play this year.
“I think defense is definitely a strength for us,” Maher said. “We got a lot of steals and created a lot of turnovers, which led to a fast-paced offense, which is what we are looking to do.”
As for scheduling, the Leathernecks will have plenty of tests in non-conference play to work out kinks before starting Summit League play on New Years’ Day.
In just the third game of the season, the Leathernecks travel to Iowa City, Iowa to take on the Iowa Hawkeyes.
The Leathernecks will also take part in the University of North Florida Classic in late November, and will follow that up with a road trip to take on the Eastern Illinois Panthers.
Other non-conference road games include North Dakota, Kansas State and Illinois State.
Even after some offseason drama, the team’s confidence is high, and they are ready to start playing.
“I think the girls think they have something to prove, and other external people in the conference and the media think we’re going to be down,” Gravina said. “We’ve improved every season since I’ve been here, and they think that we can continue to do that.”
The Leathernecks tip off their regular season on Friday at Western Hall as they take on Central Methodist at 7 p.m.