By Blake Dickinson, Contributor
With the coaching staff entering its first full year together, head Omaha basketball coach Brittany Lange believes that her team can make a statement in the league. Despite starting the job the first day of fall practice last year, Lange’s team finished 4-10 in the Summit League and 12-16 overall.
The addition of more perimeter shooters as well as reinforced post play will help the Mavs to match up well against their larger Division-I opponents. There will be several new faces on the court this year, with three players returning from injuries or transferring and three new freshmen.
The team looks forward to the benefit of experience and leadership from its players after playing mostly freshmen a year ago.
“We have a very different look than last year,” Lange said. “We’ve had the offseason, summer and preseason to condition and get used to the style that we want to play.”
The main leader for the Mavs will be senior center Taijhe Kelly, who is coming off a decorated junior year where she earned the Summit League Defensive Player of the Year Award and was seventh in the nation in blocked shots with 3.5 per game. Kelly also averaged 9.8 points and 6.9 rebounds.
For Kelly, her growth through college has prepared her to handle the pressure of leadership.
“I’ve become more versatile,” Kelly said. “I can actually score and do different things on the court.”
Coach Lange will look to Kelly to keep everyone on the same page while on the court.
“Taijhe does a really good job of knowing where everybody’s supposed to be,” Lange said. “We’re really focusing on our post players to set the tone of where everyone goes.”
Lange says being forced to play several freshmen last year has helped the team mature far ahead of schedule.
“They got thrown into the fire, and they took that as a positive,” Lange said. “They feel confident that they can go in now with the addition of new skills and better conditioning to add to their sophomore year.”
One of these sophomores hoping to make a large contribution is guard Mikaela Shaw, who took no time to ease into her role as a Maverick.
“Last year I went in blind, not knowing what I was going to expect,” Shaw said.
Despite her lack of experience, Shaw was quickly able to find her fit on last year’s team. Her 10.4 points and 6.6 rebounds per game led all freshman in the Summit League.
“I have one season and one preseason under my belt to build on, so I’m excited for this year,” Shaw said.
Shaw joins a strong group of perimeter shooters that Lange hopes will draw defenders outside to create more space for Taijhe Kelly down low. Two of these guards, juniors Cat Cox and Brianna Bogard, are coming off season-ending ACL tears. The group has a tough challenge trying to replace Ericka House, last year’s leading team scorer and third in the Summit League.
Lange also looks forward to the addition of junior guard transfer Bobbi Beckwith, who had nothing but praise for the drive that the former Iowa Western guard brings to the team.
“I’ve never seen a kid work that hard all the time,” Lange said. “She’s a quiet girl, but her actions speak very loudly.” Beckwith will be eligible for her first of three remaining semesters starting January 2015.
As far as establishing team chemistry for the younger squad,
Lange said “I think everybody’s for each other. In the first two weeks of practice, I’m very pleased with the intensity they’ve had, the eagerness to learn and the support they have for one another.”
The Mavs enter the season picked eight in the Summit League, with South Dakota State leading the preseason conference polls following their third straight regular season championship.
Despite coming into the year with a lower placement and having to deal with perennial powerhouses such as SDSU, Lange believes the conference is still wide open for the Mavs.
“The league is very open and competitive from top to bottom. I really think it’s [gonna] be competitive every single night,” she said.
With emphasized perimeter and post play on offense and proven, experienced players on defense, Lange feels the team is well prepared for the tough schedule ahead.
“The pieces are there to work with,” she said, “They understand that they are underdogs and use that to their advantage.”
Taijhe Kelly adds: “Things are getting better. You may not see it, but things are happening everyday.”
The Mavericks take on Rockhurst in their first exhibition game this Thursday at 7 p.m. in Sapp Fieldhouse and will begin their regular season Nov. 15 against Alcorn State.