There is only one direction the Aggie women’s basketball team can go.
Utah State was tabbed to finish last in the preseason Mountain West Conference poll that was released Wednesday. Coaches and selected media members voted for the poll.
“We wanted to be at the bottom,” said Aggie head coach Kayla Ard during media day Wednesday afternoon. “I love that. It motivates me. I’ll just say that’s exactly where we want to be. I know our kids are fired up about it.”
Ard took full responsibility for USU going 4-20 last year in her first year at the helm. The Aggies were 2-16 in league play.
“We’ve done a lot to work on our culture,” Ard said. “We are fired up. This is not the team that you saw last year or in past years. ... I was trying to be someone else. I had to figure out who I wanted to be as a head coach. It was hard for the staff and team to follow me until I got that figured out. I learned I have to be me. We are all on the same page now.
“I made a ton of mistakes last year, but have grown from that. We had a terrible season last year and I put that on me. ... I needed to be better. I think I am better now and the team is better and the staff is better.”
Fresno State topped the poll with 13 first-place votes and 269 points. The Bulldogs, who went 17-11 and 12-6, return 2020-21 MW Player of the Year Haley Cavinder and All-MW selection Hanna Cavinder. This is the second-consecutive year Fresno State has been the preseason favorite.
There were 27 ballots cast as six different schools garnered at least on first-place vote. New Mexico picked up seven first-place votes and 251 points. The Lobos were followed by UNLV (three first-place votes and 232 points), Colorado State (one and 207), reigning MW tournament champion Wyoming (190), Boise State (166), San Diego State (two and 135), Nevada (123), San Jose State (one and 105), Air Force (62) and USU (42).
Preseason awards were also announced. Haley Cavinder was named the MW Preseason Player of the Year, Nevada’s Kylie Jimenez was selected as the MW Preseason Newcomer of the Year, and San Diego State’s Asia Avinger was picked the MW Preseason Freshman of the Year for the second year in a row. The all-MW team included Haley and Hanna Cavinder, Colorado State’s McKenna Hofschild, New Mexico’s Antonia Anderson and UNLV’s Desi-Rae Young.
USU returns four starters from a year ago, in junior point guard Faith Brantley, fifth-year senior guard Emmie Harris, junior guard Shyla Latone and sophomore guard Meagan Mendazona. In addition four other letterwinners return to the court in sophomore guard Kinley Falslev, senior forward Taylor Franson, junior guard forward Kamalu Kamakawiwo’ole and sophomore forward Halle Nelson.
“These return players are here for a reason,” Ard said. “I’m really excited.”
All six of USU’s newcomers come from the transfer portal. The Aggies welcome two players from Murray State in graduate forward Laci Hawthorne and senior point guard Manna Mensah. Joining them are junior guard/forward Adryana Quezada (UTSA), senior guard Kaylin Randhawa (Pacific), senior guard/forward E’Lease Stafford (ETSU) and sophomore guard Olivia Wikstrom (Northern Colorado).
“I just wanted to get the best players we could get and didn’t really care where they came from,” Ard said. “I love that we added some experience and maturity. ... I think all of them can be impact players. I think we got really lucky. We didn’t miss with any of them. ... I’m really excited about these transfers and how they have mixed in well with our returners.”
Ard said the talent level at USU has vastly improved. Plus, there has been many off the court activities that has brought this team closer together. The team chemistry has improved, the coach said.
“We have a lot of athleticism this year, and we are playing fast paced,” Harris said. “I think we have a lot of people that can be in double digits scoring every game. ... This team is so different. They want to be here and have passion for the game. I feel the energy is way different this year.”
Ard’s staff has also changed some. Jauwan Scaife returns to the bench, while Marc Wilson was added and Taylor Ignoto was promoted to assistant coach.
“I learned a lot from Marc when we coached together as assistants at Clemson,” Ard said. “He is great developing post players and has a passion for defense. Having him, our energy has been different. ... Our practices have been really amped up with him here.”
USU begins the season with an exhibition game on Nov. 1, at the Dee Glen Spectrum against Fort Lewis College. The season begins with the Aggies hosting Westminster College on Nov. 9.
With COVID restrictions relaxed, Ard is trying to get more students out to home games. The HURD has been especially targeted. Ard is working with the marketing department and doing what she can to get more students to games.
“We have a phenomenal student section here,” Ard said. “I think they are hungry to get to sporting events in general after a COVID year. Our new football coach Blake Anderson has reached out to the students and they have turned out. That student section is insane at our football games. I think they will do that for men’s basketball. They support volleyball. I think students will come to our games if they know there is a head coach that wants them there and a team that wants them there.”
Ard is also giving some extra incentive for students to come and check out the team on Oct. 25, at an open practice. There will be pizza and giveaways, including one big winner.
“I got it approved; I’m going to give away $500 cash of my money,” Ard said. “It’s not coming from the athletic department. I want these students to know how much we want them there. I think if they come and give us a chance, they will love it. We have a good product. The fans can make it so fun.”