Weber State women’s basketball preview: Fresh faces hope to spur Wildcats to wins
OGDEN — Since March 7, 2018, things have been down for Weber State women’s basketball.
That was the day the Wildcats gave up 64 second-half points and lost to Idaho State 113-109 in overtime in the quarterfinals of the Big Sky tournament, in a season WSU eventually finished 21-11. Head coach Bethann Ord left not long after and WSU hired promising first-time head coach Velaida Harris to take the reins.
Between injury and talent level, the Wildcats have spun their collective wheels on the way to a 12-71 overall record over the last three seasons. They’re picked 10th and 11th in this year’s Big Sky preseason polls.
“We should be picked 10th or 11th, because that’s where we’ve fallen,” Harris said. “So we don’t argue with that, we can’t battle with that, we just do the work here in our gym and then we’ll go out on the floor and produce.”
Several players have transferred out, and WSU has retooled with seven newcomers who have pushed their roster of scholarship players to 15, a one-time opportunity because of the COVID-19 pandemic to carry more than the usual limit of 13.
Those new players give Harris the ability to approach the game differently when the Wildcats hit the floor.
“Our speed and the way we’re playing — we’re playing faster. That’s the biggest thing. We’re playing faster and extending the defense, which is not something we’ve been able to do before,” she said. “Now we have 15 players I can play. I’ve never been able to play significantly past nine people because of injury bugs or we haven’t had that many players available. And the talent at the new end is greater.”
In addition to that perceived boost in talent, Harris recruited two freshmen point guards to help Aloma Solovi run the offense and to increase the team’s ability to be disruptive on defense.
Harris knows the pressure is on to improve.
“We can’t start off the way we’ve started before. Our attitude needs to be different, our approach needs to be different, our environment needs to be different, and those are all things we put forth in the summer,” she said. “We have a long way to go, but it’s a significant difference and they feel it.
“They’re working hard because we’re trying to make a push. We’ve been sitting at the bottom and we feel like we can make a significant jump. And what the newbies bring, just collectively as a group of freshmen, the most talented group I’ve brought in.”
Ula Chamberlin: The skilled combo guard left WSU during last season after three games and has landed at UC San Diego. Chamberlin played in 29 games as a freshman, starting 23, and averaged 10.6 points and 2.4 assists per game.
Shianne Johnson: Her WSU path derailed by knee injuries, Johnson transferred to Purdue Fort Wayne. The guard played 59 games in her first two seasons, averaging 4.6 points per game, missed the 2019-20 season due to injury, and played in 11 games last season.
Raena Suggs: Suggs was a JUCO transfer guard who did not play last season and left the program.
Ashley Thoms: The 5-foot-7 guard played 15 games off the bench last season and has transferred to Hawaii. She played in 22 games as a freshman and averaged 14.3 minutes per outing in her career.
Kayla Watkins: The 6-foot-2 forward played 74 games in her first three seasons but did not take the floor in 2020-21 and has transferred as a graduate player to New Mexico State. She averaged 8.7 points and 5.3 rebounds in her career.
Dominique Williams: The 94-game veteran forward has moved from playing to coaching. Williams played in 11 games last season after sitting out 2019-20 with surgically repaired fingers that suffered several breaks. She’s now a graduate assistant on the WSU coaching staff.
Charlotte Hegvold: The 5-foot-8 freshman shooting guard is one of three Australians on the team and appeared in 15 games last season at 11 minutes per outing. Harris says she was brought to college early and getting her feet wet last season will help her and the team.
Daryn Hickok: The 5-foot-10 forward was the team’s leading scorer last season. The junior averaged 12.7 points in 27.1 minutes over 22 games, adding 4.3 rebounds per game. “She’s still growing, still getting better every day,” Harris said.
Jadyn Matthews: Matthews took a massive jump between her first and second seasons, becoming a nimble point-forward type of player who led the team in rebounds at 6.9 per game. The 6-foot junior averaged 9.6 points per game, shot a team-best 34.6% from the 3-point line and was second in assists at 1.7 per game.
Vicky Parra: The 6-foot-2 Spaniard was limited by injuries last season and returns to give the Wildcats improved depth in the post.
Kori Pentzer: The senior is the team’s most experienced Wildcat, appearing in 80 career games. With reinforcements at point guard, the 5-foot-9 player should be able to play at her natural shooting guard position exclusively. She averaged 10 points, 3.1 rebounds and one assist per game, shooting a team-best 91.7% from the foul line (55 of 60).
Mikayla Peterson: The 6-foot-1 Australian is another post reinforcement. Peterson appeared in three games and missed time with illness last season.
Aloma Solovi: The 5-foot-7 senior point guard started all 22 games last season at 29.1 minutes per game “on three bad knees,” Harris says, dishing a team-high 41 assists. “It was important for us to get two more point guards in here and help her.”
Emma Torbert: Torbert came to WSU from Nevada and averaged 7.2 points and 5.6 rebounds in 20 games. Harris says the 6-foot-2 junior center is a high-IQ player and should make a jump in productivity with better comfort in her role and experience.
Robert Casey, Weber State Athletics In this February 2021 photo, Weber State forward Daryn Hickok, front, pivots against the Sacramento State defense at the Dee Events Center in Ogden.
Aaliyah Ellis: A 5-foot-9 freshman guard from Texas, Ellis should be “be somebody we can put on a point guard and have her harass them all night. She can shoot the 3 as well but right now I have her focus being defense,” Harris says.
Tamali’i Fonoti: WSU brought in this 6-foot-4 Hawaiian freshman by way of California to increase the size and depth at the center spot. “She’s a talented individual and she can move. She can get up and down the floor, she’s light on her feet,” Harris said. “I expect her to be ready to give us solid minutes by conference play.”
Nakilah Johnson: The first word Harris used to describe Johnson is “shooter.” The 5-foot-11 Californian should be a prototypical 3-and-D wing, which WSU has lacked in recent years.
Kaiija Lesane: Lesane is one of the two speedy freshmen point guards WSU added for defense and overall quickness of the roster. The 5-foot-4 Californian is “very quick, lightning quick, great defender,” Harris says.
Emri Lovell: Lovell is the other 5-foot-4 freshman point guard who joins with Lesane. The Texas native is learning quickly, Harris says, and is a “great player, heady point guard.”
Laura Taylor: Taylor is one of two transfers. The 6-foot guard-forward combo is an Australian native who helped Northwest Florida State College win the JUCO national championship last season. Taylor played 12 minutes per game off the bench, averaging 3.6 points and 1.7 rebounds. Her transfer to WSU is a chance to increase her role and show her shooting chops. Harris says her leadership came to the front on Day 1 with the program.
Ava Williams: Williams is the other transfer, a 5-foot-9 junior who transferred from Colgate. She started all 30 games at Colgate as a sophomore in the 2019-20 season before sitting out the 2020-21 season, during which Colgate played only nine games. She averaged 5.2 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game. Harris said Williams is similar to Jadyn Matthews and will play a similar four-spot role for the Wildcats, has a great mid-range game and can “jump out of the gym.”
There’s only one way to go for this program, and an infusion of speed and athleticism can only help a Wildcats team looking to do more than play hard and lose a bunch. Last year’s team didn’t benefit much from what experience it had as Ula Chamberlin left the team after three games, and Dominique Williams and Shianne Johnson struggled to regain form after tough injuries.
The feeling inside the locker room is that, unlike last season, the bevy of young players who gained experience last season will be in position to push the team forward as the two transfers and five freshmen boost both depth and talent.
The Wildcats open the 2021-22 campaign at home with a 4:30 p.m. matchup Tuesday, Nov. 9, against North Dakota. WSU is advertising that fans who buy tickets to this women’s game get half-price tickets for the men’s game that follows, a 7 p.m. doubleheader nightcap against Western Colorado.
WSU will take trips to Texas Tech and Colorado State while hosting a slew of Division-I home nonconference games against North Dakota, Omaha, Tarleton State, New Mexico State and Pacific. Over the course of a month, from mid-December to mid-January, the WSU women play six consecutive home games.
There are two more women’s/men’s doubleheaders on the slate for the Dee Events Center. On Saturday, Dec. 11, the WSU women host Tarleton State at noon and the men play Maine Fort Kent at 2:30 p.m. On Saturday, Dec. 18, the women host New Mexico State at noon and the men play BYU at 6 p.m. in a day-night pairing.
FULL WOMEN’S SCHEDULE
All Times Mountain
All home and conference games stream on ESPN+
Nov. 9: vs. North Dakota, 4:30 p.m.
Nov. 13: @ Portland, 8:30 p.m.
Nov. 16: @ Texas Tech, 6 p.m.
Nov. 21: vs. Omaha, 1 p.m.
Nov. 26: @ UC Davis, 1:30 p.m.
Dec. 2: @ Northern Arizona, 6 p.m.
Dec. 4: @ Portland State, 3 p.m.
Dec. 8: @ Colorado State, 6 p.m.
Dec. 11: vs. Tarleton State, Noon
Dec. 18: vs. New Mexico State, Noon
Dec. 21: vs. Pacific, 5 p.m.
Dec. 30: vs. Montana State, 6 p.m.
Jan. 1: vs. Montana, 1 p.m.
Jan. 8: vs. Idaho State, 1 p.m.
Jan. 13: @ Idaho, 7 p.m.
Jan. 15: @ E. Washington, 3 p.m.
Jan. 20: @ Idaho State, 7 p.m.
Jan. 24: vs. Southern Utah, 6 p.m.
Jan. 27: vs. Northern Colorado, 6 p.m.
Jan. 29: vs. Sacramento State, Noon
Feb. 3: @ Montana, 7 p.m.
Feb. 5: @ Montana State, 2 p.m.
Feb. 10: vs. E. Washington, TBD
Feb. 12: vs. Idaho, 1 p.m.
Feb. 17: @ Sacramento State, 8 p.m.
Feb. 19: @ Northern Colorado, 2 p.m.
Feb. 24: vs. Portland State, 6 p.m.
Feb. 26: vs. Northern Arizona, 1 p.m.
March 4: @ Southern Utah, 6:30 p.m.
March 7-11: Big Sky Tournament, Boise