The Tabor College women?s basketball team features new and returning talent this season.
Last year, Tabor posted a 15-3 KCAC record, 20-10 overall and ended the season with a loss to Southwestern in the KCAC tournament semifinals.
The Bluejays lost several key players from that team, including third-team All-KCAC starter Katlyn Mary who averaged 9.7 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game. Also gone is Tynan Honn, who started 30 games and averaged 4.7 points and 3.1 rebounds.
But with four key returners and a talented group of newcomers, third-year head coach Shawn Reed is excited about the season.
?They?re working hard,? he said. ?They?re a great group. They get along really well.?
Four seniors will be expected to anchor Tabor this season.
Nikki Lewis is a starting point guard after transferring to Tabor her junior year. The 5-foot senior averaged 11.5 points and 3.5 rebounds last year and earned Honorable Mention All-American honors in addition to being a unanimous First Team All-KCAC selection.
?(Nikki) does a great job of taking care of the basketball, distributing the basketball, but she can also score,? Reed said. ?She?s very quick. She can attack the rim. You really have to game-plan for her defensively, and she can shoot the three as well.
?She?s a very good defender. For as small as she is, she?s a really good rebounder. She?s a very, very good all-around player and should be a key piece to what we?re trying to do this year.?
A second starter, Janelle Rust (5-11), returns at forward after missing the last quarter of the season with a knee injury. Even so, Rust led the conference in scoring at 15.4 points per game.
She also led the KCAC in field goal percentage (46.2) and three-point percentage (42.9), the latter good for sixth in NAIA Division II.
Rust earned honors as a Third Team All-American, a unanimous First Team All-KCAC selection, KCAC Player of the Year and conference Newcomer of the Year.
It will take time, Reed said, for Rust to find her rhythm.
?This is going to be a different kind of year for her because she?s coming off a major injury late in the year,? he said. ?To expect her to do exactly what she did before her injury?especially I think at the beginning of the year?would be unrealistic. But that doesn?t mean she can?t be an important player and a big player for us.?
Reed already has seen improvement.
?I?m seeing gradual, steady improvement and so I?m expecting a lot of her this year as well,? he said.
Tabor?s third returning starter, Molly Moran (5-8), made 38 percent of her three-point shots last season. She averaged 4.9 points and 2.2 rebounds per game.
?Molly?s probably one of our best three-point shooters, and again, she was a first-year player last year, so she should be more comfortable with what we?re doing on both ends of the court,? Reed said. ?I think she?s a heady player and understands what we need her to do to be successful.
?I think she?s gotten better defensively. She?s done a good job for us.?
Senior Hannah Leppke (5-11) returns after averaging 7.7 points and 4.2 rebounds last season.
?Hannah has done a really good job for us,? Reed said. ?She?s not the strongest kid, but she?s really pretty quick for a forward, and she?s shot the three really well this year for us at the beginning of the year.
?She?s kind of figured out her role on our team, and she?s done a terrific job.?
Tabor has relied on contributions from a number of newcomers this season.
Junior transfer Tonisha Dean (5-11) has started for the Bluejays.
?Tonisha Dean is an excellent player, probably one of the best athletes I?ve ever coached at this level,? Reed said. ?She is unbelievably strong, quick, athletic, and she?s a high Division II, low Division I type of athlete.?
Junior forward Erin Maxwell also has started.
?She?s a good rebounder, heady around the basket, runs the floor well for a post,? Reed said.
Three sophomores are seeing increased varsity time: Mallory Zuercher (5-7), Amber Tamez (5-9) and Kayla Wilgers (5-6).
The Bluejay roster also includes freshmen talent.
Kaleigh Troxell, a 5-9 guard, has seen the most playing time of any freshman thus far, Reed said.
?She?s just going to be a great player,? Reed said. ?She?s a strong kid; she?s a competitive kid.
?We have some other good freshmen, but they?re behind some pretty good players right now, and so they?re getting a lot of time on the JV and getting some good experience? Reed said.
The roster also includes freshman forward Tena Loewen (5-11), who is transitioning to basketball after earning Freshman of the Year and Second-Team All-KCAC honors as part of the volleyball team.
Tabor, currently 3-5, has faced a difficult schedule that has included three NAIA Division I opponents. Two of those games were close, including a 96-90 overtime loss to Baker and an 87-86 loss to Mid-America Christian.
Tabor lost to John Brown University, 78-58.
The other two losses came at the hands of Hastings College and 23rd-ranked College of Saint Mary. The Bluejays defeated 10th-ranked College of the Ozarks, 65-62, Nov. 15.
The team is still developing chemistry.
?We need to be better defensively,? Reed said. ?We were pretty good defensively against Ozarks, a game we?ve won. Then the other games, we haven?t been very good defensively and so that definitely has to get better.?
Reducing turnovers is another priority.
?We turn the ball over too much, so that has to improve,? Reed said. ?Our field goal percentage hasn?t been very good either. That?s partly a chemistry issue because I know we have people that can shoot it.?
Tabor will enter KCAC play with the same 3-5 record as last year, but will have faced better opponents, Reed said.
Tabor, who received votes in the NAIA coaches? preseason Top 25 poll, is scheduled to open conference play at home at 6 p.m. Thursday against Kansas Wesleyan, who also is receiving votes.
Tabor was picked second in the KCAC preseason basketball coaches? poll behind Southwestern, who currently ranks 14th in the Top 25.
Reed anticipates the Bluejays to be in contention at the top of the conference.
?We definitely have the talent to do that,? he said.
Other teams to watch include Kansas Wesleyan, Friends (also receiving NAIA votes) and Sterling in what Reed anticipates will be a tough conference.
?Our conference from top to bottom will be pretty strong,? he said. ?We?ll have to come out ready to play every night, or we?ll get beat.?
Reed is optimistic about the season ahead.
?This is the most talented bunch I?ve had at Tabor?not just on the court but off the court,? he said. ?I just love everything about our team. We?ve got good people and good players, and I think the only thing that can stop us this year is ourselves.
?If we don?t work hard and practice hard and execute and be disciplined, then we?ll struggle. If we do those things, I think the sky is the limit for us.?