Over the entire history of the Shawnee State University women basketball program, winning conference championships and going deep into national tournaments haven’t just been what the players inside of the program hope for. In fact, it’s what they expect.
And as the 2017-18 NAIA campaign kicks off, those expectations are literally no different.
Even after losing double-double machine and NAIA All-American Jonessa Moore (18.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 59 percent shooting) along with four-year mainstay Jen Arnzen (8.5 points, 5.6 rebounds, 52 percent shooting, 47 percent three-point shooting), the return of star guards Ashton Lovely, Bailey Cummins, and Madison Ridout, along with another strong freshman class, have head coach Jeff Nickel thinking big things again.
“We return quite a bit,” Nickel said. “Losing Jonessa Moore and Jen Arnzen, and all of the experience that they have brought to the table, is hard to replace. Still, I like what we have. I like our freshmen. Leah Wingeier, Laken Smith, Sienna King, and Hagen Schaefer are all very talented, and just add on to all of the young talent that we already have returning at the guard positions.”
And that play at the guard spots could very well be what spearheads Shawnee State to another run into, and past, the NAIA Second Round in 2017-18.
Overall, each of the Bears’ top five guards return from a unit that ranked first in scoring (89.18 points per game), first in three-point percentage (.398), first in scoring offense (3,032), and second in field goal percentage (48.7). Madison Ridout and Bailey Cummins each shot over 45 percent from the field and scored 11 points per affair last season, while Ashton Lovely, Shania Massie, and Hannah Miller add an excellent blend of deft ballhandling skills, crafty passing, and strong shooting ability to the table. All five players are at least 5-7 or taller.
“Our style of play isn’t going to change because we still have all of the guards back from last year’s team that was so efficient offensively,” Nickel said. “We push the ball on offense, and I believe that we really try to run our high-low and our spread pick-and-roll actions well. With our ability to shoot the basketball, we’ll have the opportunity to spread the floor. So I really wouldn’t expect any difference in our style of play. The key’s going to be how those freshmen come along and fill in some of those roles. Yes, freshmen don’t typically become First-Team All-Americans. It’s a process.”
Leading the way for Shawnee State throughout the season will be Lovely and Ridout, who are arguably not only two of the more skilled players in the entire Mid-South Conference, but the entire NAIA Division I landscape as well. Ridout, the MSC’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2016-17, is shooting a stellar 65 percent from the field through the first three affairs of 2017 en route to 20.3 points, nine rebounds, 4.7 assists, and 3.7 steals per contest in SSU’s 3-0 start, while Lovely has obtained 19.5 points and five rebounds per affair on 46.7 percent shooting from the field.
“Ashton does a lot of things in practice that leaves you shaking your head,” Nickel said. “It’s a privilege to coach her every day and coach someone with that amount of talent, heart, and determination. It’s a lot of fun. She is back to form, and then some. She’s a lot better, and a lot wiser. Madison is a very gritty, tough, and determined kid who goes out and does whatever we, as a staff, choose for her to do that night. You’re sitting there, thinking about how you’re going to stop someone. You spend a lot of nights watching film and prepping. She’s one of those answers you come to. She’s a problem-solver. It’s fun to go out and compete with somebody like that. I’ll miss Madison’s competitive streak when she graduates. She’s a gamer. She loves to compete and she’s not afraid to play in big games.”
Behind the main duo, the presence of Lydia Poe, who played in a reserve role behind Arnzen and Moore the last two seasons, will be crucial to the success of Shawnee State’s attack this season, considering that Poe is the lone low-post player with college basketball playing experience prior to the start of the 2017-18 campaign. And through three games, Poe has certainly come through for the Bears, as the 6-2 center is averaging a double-double (17 points, 10 rebounds) on 69 percent shooting in SSU’s 3-0 start.
“Lydia’s got a wealth of talent,” Nickel said. “She’s been able to mature. She got married to her high school sweetheart this summer, and I think the maturation that goes along with that has helped her. I believe that she wants to coach in the future. She’s got a lot of different perspectives that she didn’t have the first two years. That wealth and amount of experience is really going to benefit her this season. It’s already shown this offseason in how she’s taken on a leadership role and has mentored the younger players.”
In addition to Lovely and Ridout, the additional trio of guards in the main rotation — Cummins, Miller, and Massie — will each take on extended roles, according to the fifth-year head coach.
Cummins, who is averaging 15.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, and a team-best 5.7 assists per game on 48.7 percent shooting through the first three weeks of the season, has made great strides defensively, according to Nickel, while Massie (5.7 points, 3.3 rebounds in 24.3 minutes) has shown off her exceptional playmaking abilities throughout the preseason.
“Bailey is very consistent and very solid,” Nickel said. “She’s one of the best point guards in the Mid-South, if not the nation. She is an exceptional talent. She has a lot of talent and a lot of determination. Shania has been very consistent shooting the basketball so far and is a gritty, tough defender already. She has that killer instinct. Last year, she had good players around her, and settled into her role. This year, we’re asking her to be more aggressive, and she’s transitioning into that role.”
As for Miller, the off-guard from Coal Grove by way of Ironton St. Joe was mentioned by Nickel as arguably his most improved hand on the entire roster. And so far, the 5-9 guard is certainly showing it, averaging 16 points, 3.3 rebounds, and three assists on 44.4 percent shooting from the field.
“Hannah has grown leaps and bounds,” Nickel said. “She’s one of the fastest-developing players that I’ve had since I’ve been here. She just figures out a way to take her game to another level every year. Defensively, she was inconsistent last year, but over the course of the offseason, she really developed into one of our best defensive players. She’s always been an exceptional offensive talent, and is a very intelligent girl who has her head on her shoulders. She does a little bit of everything.”
Even after the main core, the freshmen four certainly have made enough of an impact for those involved within the program to believe that the quartet will be a force to be reckoned with for years to come. Leah Wingeier, a 6-5 post player from Newark, offers exciting possibilities with her long frame, while Laken Smith — a star forward from Waverly that was arguably the best player in the SOC II ranks — and Sienna King, another freshman forward from Shelby, have each put in strong repetitions throughout the offseason.
“Leah’s a 6-5 kid that can run and is left-handed,” Nickel said. “She’s developing a very good back-to-the-basket game and has a huge ceiling. Lakin has the ability to put the ball in the hole, and on top of that, she’s really blinding into our style of play, which is really hard for a freshman to go. Sienna is a really good, cerebral player who understands what’s going on from a standpoint of what we’re trying to do as a team and as a coaching staff. She has the mentality of an upperclassman, who is very exciting.”
Last, but most certainly not least, there’s the abilities that Hagen Schaefer offers up. The 5-8 guard — whose aunt, Robin Hagen-Smith, started the successful program that has turn so many heads since its formation 35 years ago, when the school was still referred to as Shawnee Junior College — is a competitor who brings Second-Team All-Ohio accolades to the table.
“Hagen has come in and has competed every day with those guards,” Nickel said. “It’s fun watching her go out here and compete against these guys every day. You look at a Jen Arnzen, who just kept grinding and grinding and grinding, and by the end of her career, was a two-year starter that had a record of 60-9 as a starter. Hagen has that same type of grit and attitude, and Hagen’s got a lot of love for the program. She knows what it’s all about and knows what it takes, because she’s witnessed it since she was a little girl. Her family is Shawnee State basketball. It’s really fun to have her in the program, and it’s fun to have her family back in a different role.”
But overall, whether it’s the old faces, the new faces, or the different gameplans and rotations that precede each game, the expectations will always remain the same. It wouldn’t be Shawnee State basketball if it wasn’t.
“We want to go out every year and reach our utmost potential,” Nickel said. “Winning the Mid-South Conference regular season and tournament title is a big thing, as is making it to Billings (Mont.). Everybody wants to go to the Final Four. We want to be the best team in the conference. We want to be the best team in the country. We want to be No. 1. We want to be national champions.”
Shawnee State defeated its first three opponents, Kentucky Christian, Cincinnati Christian, and West Virginia Tech, by 108-52, 96-54, and 94-69 margins, respectively. A complete schedule can be found online at www.ssubears.com.
Contests can also be found live on Stretch Internet at https://portal.stretchinternet.com/shawneest/. There, every home contest — women or men — will be televised and broadcasted live for all to listen to.