State Colleges

Healthier Jets women’s team benefits from past injuries

The Wichita Eagle

Three knee injuries to three key players didn’t help the Newman women’s basketball team a year ago. But there may have been a silver lining that only now is revealing itself as a new season arrives.

Mali Wright, who averaged 12.8 points and 6.8 rebounds before her season ended in January, will return for her senior year with a stronger knee. While she sat out, she remained engaged with the team and saw something she liked.

“It was tough (sitting out), but it gave the younger girls the chance to step in and get some minutes, so that turned out to be a positive,” she said. “I was here at every practice I could be at telling them what I could see and trying to give them as much confidence as possible, and I think they really did step up. We ended pretty well last season, and I think it for sure prepared them for this season.”

Bria DeGrate was just a freshman when she was thrown into the starting lineup last season after the injuries. She said she wasn’t prepared then but is now better equipped to lead as a sophomore.

“I wasn’t ready at first,” she said. “I was really nervous but once the games started coming I grew more and more relaxed. And now I am ready. I gained a lot of confidence, and I realized that age doesn’t matter. If you play hard and work hard enough to build up your skills, you can play with anybody.”

Coach Darin Spence saw the transformation in his team as they learned to play without some of their stars. Along with DeGrate, fellow freshmen Iva Krstevska and Melanie George saw extended playing time. All three are back for a more experienced and confident sophomore year.

“Three of our sophomores got to play a whole lot sooner than what we anticipated when we brought them in so they’re more game-ready coming into this year and that adds to our depth,” Spence said. “It accelerated their growth for sure, especially in the competition setting.”

Those sophomores will back up senior guard Cierra Tjaden and 6-foot senior Natalie Hausmann, both of whom averaged more than 20 minutes of playing time last year.

Chemistry questions remain for a team with a mix of seniors, experienced sophomores and several junior transfers that may not all be on the same page right at the start of the season.

That start includes a November schedule with trips to Denton, Texas and Fairbanks, Alaska, where wins won’t come easy.

“The overall win-loss percentage – I am concerned about it but as long as we’re getting better as the season goes and have a chance later on, I’m fine with it,” Spence said. “We have some returning players, but we’re still young and it’s a league with juniors and seniors.”