Women’s Basketball Schedule Released

David Koier, Courier Staff

The Western Illinois Leathernecks women’s basketball team released their official schedule for the 2020-2021 season on Nov. 4.  Women’s basketball kicks off their season with a non-conference matchup with Division I newcomer Bellarmine on Nov. 29. Summit League play for the Leathernecks begins in January with the team hosting North Dakota State here in Macomb at Western Hall. Structure for Summit League games will consist of teams playing the same opponent twice at the same location on back-to-back days, with each team receiving a bye week.

The rest of the non-conference schedule is highlighted with some familiar faces. Western is set to compete in the Compass Challenge with the other cardinal direction schools in Illinois (Southern, Eastern and Northern) on Dec. 4 and 5. Western’s home opener for the season will take place on Dec. 13 when the Leathernecks host in-state rivals Illinois State.

With a full slate of non-conference games set for this season, it still doesn’t compare to last season’s schedule. Due to COVID-19, Western is down to no exhibition games and only eight non-Summit League matchups compared to two exhibition and 13 non-conference games last year.

Head coach JD Gravina thinks that with the shortened non-conference schedule, it may take his team a little longer to get comfortable.

“I think that the last two years we’ve gotten a lot better as the year’s gone on and it’s taken us a good part of that non-conference schedule to become the team that we’ve been that competes. And in our non-conference, we have the most struggles early. That is a little scary because we won’t have as many of those non-conference games to prepare. You know the couple of years before that I think with our system, we were ready to play. I think we’ll be somewhere in between that this year.”

Western finished last season tied for third in The Summit with a 9-7 conference record after dropping their last two games of the regular season to Oral Roberts and Denver – the two teams whom Western tied within the standings. With the fifth seed in The Summit League Tournament, Western saw an early exit as they lost to Oral Roberts 74-66 in the first round.

Despite losing some top-tier talent in Olivia Kaufmann (16.9 points per game, third in The Summit) and Annabel Graettinger (13.1 points per game, missed the second half of the season due to injury), the Leathernecks are returning some all-star talent.

Sophomore Carla Flores returns after stepping up big last season. Coming off the bench at the start of the season, Flores was transitioned into a starting role after Graettinger was sidelined due to injury. She finished conference play averaging 8.1 points per game (fourth on the team) and 30 assists (tied for second). Accompanying Flores and Zars this season is returning starter junior, Danni Nichols. The junior guard proved to be a dual threat with Kaufmann in her sophomore season, averaging 14.4 points per game and 5.2 rebounds per game. Nichols also led Western Illinois in conference play, shooting 52 percent from the field and 34.9 percent from three point range.

Last season, the Leathernecks had a very young squad. Out of their five starters – those who started 14 or more of the 16 conference games – two were sophomores and one (Flores) was a redshirt freshman. Four of the five starters are returning for the 2020-2021 season. The Leathernecks proved last season that even with the lack of experience in Summit League play, Gravina’s young squad could hold their own in the competitive Summit.