Shawnee State women’s basketball has been one of the major forces and staples at the NAIA level throughout the county. The Bears are coming off arguably their best regular season in school history where they finished the regular season with an overall record of 27-3 and a perfect 14-0 in conference play. This was only the second time in Mid-South Conference history in which a team has went undefeated in conference play (Campbellsville, 2009-2010). When the NAIA preseason poll was released on Tuesday afternoon, Shawnee State was ranked second in the nation and also received one first place vote.
Bears head coach Jeff Nickel says his team likes the challenge put on his team as other teams view them as the team to beat. “I like that pressure” said Nickel, “I think it makes you sharp, it makes you concentrate. You look at your successful teams in the past: Kentucky and UConn on the women’s side, you look at the New England Patriots: I think that pressure to stay on top is what keeps them sharp and what keeps them focused, it’s what makes them concentrate every single day on being their personal best.”
One of the newcomers on this season’s SSU women’s basketball team, junior transfer from the University of West Alabama, Sydney King, says that that challenge of being one of the top teams is what brought her to Portsmouth to play for Nickel. “That’s very motivational” said King, “It’s different because I’m not used to being number one. At West Alabama, we were pretty much the worst seed. So being that team that everyone looks to beat is very motivational for me.”
Nickel’s Bears’ will be returning eight players from the team that had quite possibly the best regular season in school history, including first team NAIA all American Ashton Lovely, first team NAIA all American Bailey Cummins, and honorable mention for the NAIA all American list, Hannah Miller. Shawnee State had a total of four NAIA all Americans a season ago when including the now graduated first team all American guard, Madison Ridout. The four Bears to make the all American lists last season was a school record for SSU.
Nickel is excited for what his team will be returning heading into his sixth season as the women’s head coach at Shawnee. “I like what we’re returning” said Nickel, “Three all Americans coming back, graduating one in Madison Ridout who was a kind of do it all player for us. I was talking to our kids’ kind of about our team: we return about 72% of our offense, about 67% of our rebounding, so we’re in a pretty good position with that. It’s going to be how this team mixes together, how our new pieces are able to fit in with our current ones, and how we’re able to blend all of that this year.”
Cummins said at Shawnee State media day that she had been working on different aspects of her game in preparation for her junior season. “The big thing that I’ve been focused on has just been putting on weight because I’ve been tiny my whole life” said Cummins, “It would definitely help different parts of my game. One thing that me and Coach (Nickel) talked about after last season was me being able to guard positions 1-4 and being able to switch off on screens. In my individual workouts it’s been a lot of working to get my shots off quicker and expanding my range on my shot.”
Miller said the thing she had most been working on has been her health and the athletic aspects of her game. “Individually, I’ve been working on my health and making sure I’m not getting too stiff because I am older, and I’ve had some injuries in the past” said Miller, “As a team, I think we’ve been working on our offensive flow and being able to shift on defense and making sure our help side d is there.”
The Mid-South conference is one of the best conferences at the NAIA level and repeating as regular season conference champs is one of Nickel’s goals for his team entering the season. “I think the league is really strong” said Nickel, “I think there’s a lot of balance and parody at the middle and bottom. You look at Life who was voted 8th in the preseason poll that has a kid from Arizona transferring in. Georgetown has a couple of division one transfers and a division two transfer and a really good freshman class. University of Cumberlands has a kid that signed at Gardner Webb and a new coach that was a division one head coach. I think just think there’s a lot of parody from top to bottom. The rankings came out, and I knew it would be a hard decision about where to rank people. I think we have a chance to get several teams into the national tournament, and I think we’re going to represent the NAIA really well.”
Shawnee State will play division one Morehead State in an exhibition game on Monday in what will be a good test for his team, Nickel believes. “They’re going to be really good” said Nickel, “They return three kids who all averaged double figures. They have three BCS transfers coming in. Morehead is honestly a team that has a chance to get to the NCAA tournament and depending on their draw, maybe win a game. They have an outstanding group of kids from what I’ve seen, and I think it’s really going to be a good challenge for us. Playing a game with that much talent early in the year, I think is going to be fantastic. That’s what you want to do early on: challenge yourself with these big games. Morehead State is a place where I’ve been to a lot of games by growing up watching Greenup County games and playing in that gym. So it’s going to be a home coming in a sense to a gym where I got to watch a lot of games growing up. For our team, it’s going to be a good challenge and it’s going to help us get better.”
In addition to being ranked as the #2 team in the NAIA preseason poll, Shawnee State was picked as the favorites in the Mid-South conference preseason poll. The Bears will open up their regular season play Friday at home at 6:00 p.m. against Kentucky Christian University as well as on Saturday at 2:00 p.m. against the University of Northwestern Ohio.
For a full roster and schedule for the Shawnee State University women’s basketball team, please visit http://www.ssubears.com/sport/0/13.php.
Reach Jacob Smith at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @JacobSmithPDT