Northwest women’s basketball senior Kendey Eaton driving to the paint against Central Missouri Feb. 21. Eaton averaged 12.7 points per contest on 39% shooting in her junior season.

Coming into this season, Northwest women’s basketball is a year removed from a 2018 campaign that followed the trend of recent struggles in the program.

As coach Austin Meyer settles in for his second year at the helm, he’s started to build the program to his own liking. A roster that’s made up of 17 women, including six true freshmen, was pegged to finish 10th in the MIAA Preseason Coaches Poll. That mark is three spots ahead of where the women were tabbed prior to the 2018 season and two spots ahead of where they finished in last year’s regular season.

The placement in the poll marks the highest ranking in the preseason for the program in seven years, Meyer said.

“Our message to the team was, ‘I don’t think anybody came here to finish 10th,’” Meyer said. “I hope they didn’t. … I think we have higher expectations.”

Along with the hefty recruiting class, which makes up more than a third of the roster, the women return numerous players who logged significant playing time last year. The Bearcats bring back last year’s leading scorer senior guard Kendey Eaton, who averaged 12.7 points per contest. Eaton will be joined by a junior class that’s headlined by Jaelyn Haggard, Zoie Hayward and Mallory McConkey.

The struggle, of course, is trying to find playing time for 17 players during each game.

“We’ve been transparent with it, telling our team that we have 17 kids on the roster and we’re not going to play 17,” Meyer said. “I like our group of returners; they’ve set the bar really high for us going into the preseason and to where we’re at now. … I like our group right now, and I think that we can make some huge improvements this year.”

After taking the program over following the departure of former coach Buck Scheel, Meyer’s recruiting is starting to shape the program into a place that’s starting to find its feet.

“I think as a whole program we’re in a much better spot than we were last year,” Meyer said. “At the same time, there’s kids we didn’t recruit that are in our program, and those are our kids to us. A lot of those kids, our junior class, they’re all in the mix right now as far as playing time goes. They’ve worked at it. They’ve had great summers; they’ve improved. I think overall our freshman class is a very solid class. … We’re just excited where we’re going as a whole.”

The ’Cats will get their first test in an exhibition game against the University of Missouri-Kansas City Roos Oct. 29. The game will serve as a measuring stick game that will give Meyer and the rest of his staff a chance to evaluate where the program is before the regular season starts. Excited for the matchup, the team is ready to finally play somebody other than themselves, Meyer said.

“We’ve been doing a lot of scrimmaging,” Meyer said. “Getting to see another team, asking, ‘Did we play well on offense? Did we play well on defense?’ So just getting to play another team to know if you’re executing on both ends of the ball — it’ll be fun, and we’re excited.”

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