Despite basketball season starting in a week among the MIAA, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has people wondering if there will even be a season.
If there is one, it's uncertain of how long it might last.
The MIAA CEO Council gave the go-ahead for a conference-only schedule Oct. 1, and Northwest women’s basketball coach Austin Meyer and his team suited up for practice, which began on Oct. 15.
“We’re excited about the season. We’ve really improved our culture overall,” Meyer said. “We’re excited to get things going.”
Meyer and his staff are entering year three of their tenure, after taking over a struggling program. In 2017, the year before Meyer took over, the women won five games. Last season, in Meyer's second year, the 'Cats captured 12 wins and returned to the MIAA tournament.
The Bearcats return three of their top four scorers in senior guards Mallory McConkey (12.8 ppg), Jaelyn Haggard (10.4 ppg) and Kylie Coleman (7.7 ppg).
Northwest has six seniors on the team, but they carry a lot of weight in the production in practice and games.
“They’ve done a great job from a working standpoint, Mallory McConkey and Jaelyn Haggard. They spend as much time as anybody in the gym,” Meyer said. “We always talk about getting in on your own time, not just showing up for practice. They’ve done a great job for us kind of setting the tone.”
McConkey is coming off a campaign where she started in 28 games and shot 47% from the field. She also led the team with 110 rebounds and was 82% from the free-throw line.
Haggard played in 27 games and led the team in 3-pointers with 66 made. Haggard made at least one 3-pointer in 24 games, shooting 39.6% from beyond the arc. The ability to make 3-pointers consistently led her to score in double figures in 19 games.
The rest of the roster is filled with six freshmen and three sophomores. Although a majority of the roster has not experienced a minute of MIAA action, Meyer is excited about what his young squad can contribute.
“Bringing the freshman class that we have has brought a whole other level of competitiveness. Molly Hartnett has been really good for us this year,” Meyer said. “We’ve scrimmaged a lot; we’ve tried to simulate as much game-like as we can. They’re meshing well.”
Northwest was picked to finish ninth in the Preseason MIAA Coaches Poll. This marks the highest selection since 2012, when they were projected to finish seventh.
“It’s our highest preseason ranking, which obviously is not that high, but we are going in the right direction. It’s just such a good league. There’s so many good teams, so many good players and so many good coaches,” Meyer said. “In order to make a significant jump in the league, you have to get outside your comfort zone and put more time in, and I think we’ve done that as a program.”
The season has been cut short to 22 regular-season games, with Northwest only competing against MIAA schools. This limits the Bearcats from facing opponents in different divisions and tuning their play style before conference play.
“Obviously it’s different; going into that first conference game without being able to watch five or six games of your opponent will be tough,” Meyer said. “It’s one of those things where it’s the same situation for everybody. It’s different, but we’re all just kind of navigating it the best we can.”
While game-planning for opponents week in and week out is challenging, the Bearcats have another challenge on their hands, and that’s keeping players from coming in contact with COVID-19.
With a shortened schedule and an unknown amount of games needed to be played to reach the MIAA conference tournament, the coaches are stressing the importance of staying healthy.
“We just try to educate our kids to be safe, follow the protocols, stay out of large gatherings, and obviously don’t go to parties,” Meyer said. “They’re all adults, so we’re not going to stick a GoPro on everybody’s head and monitor where they’re going, so we want to make sure they’re doing the right things.”
Northwest will open its season on the road against Northeastern State Nov. 19. Northeastern is projected to finish at 12th in the Preseason MIAA Coaches Poll.