It’s difficult to believe the 2019-20 women’s basketball season ended the way it did.
“The way our season ended last year was a little funky,” said Southern Utah University women’s basketball coach Tracy Sanders. “We got off the bus, and then we didn’t see each other for a really long time.”
SUU women’s basketball exceeded preseason media poll expectations with their performance in the 2019-20 season. After finishing 8-23 in 2018-19, the T-Birds responded the following year finishing 18-13, their best record since 2013-14.
The season was headlined by star guard Rebecca Cardenas.
Cardenas started all 31 games for SUU as she led the team in steals, assists, and scoring. She also took home Big Sky Women’s Basketball Defensive Player of the Year and Big Sky All-Conference first team honors.
Unfortunately for the T-Birds, Cardenas graduated after exhausting her eligibility.
While Cardenas earned most of the accolades, she was not alone last season. Her supporting cast was with her every step of the way.
Guard Harley Hansen and forward Ashley Larsen graduated alongside Cardenas. Hansen was second on the team in scoring (12.5 PPG) and second in steals (50 total). She started all 31 games and was second on the team in minutes played. Larsen averaged 7.3 PPG and 5.3 RPG in about 20 MPG. She also started 70 games during her career at SUU.
The Lady T-Birds also found production in their underclassmen. Forwards Shay Fano and Jessica Chatman were both regulars in SUU’s starting lineup, and guard Claudia Armato overcame early-season injuries to become an essential sidekick for Cardenas in the backcourt.
Fano, a freshman in 2019-20, averaged above 43% from three-point range, as well as boasting the highest field goal percentage on the team at 47%. She also led the team in rebounds, averaging 5.7 per game. Armato seemed to improve and become more confident with each game, finishing the season third on the team in minutes played per game with 28.1, second in total assists with 84 and second in total steals with 31.
For the Lady T-Birds, the future looked bright to build around Fano, Armato and 2017 Big Sky Reserve of the Year, Darri Frandsen.
Then came COVID-19. And then came the summer.
In April, Armato transferred to the University of Alabama Birmingham.
Just days later, Chatman transferred to Utah State University.
And in July, Fano returned to the Utah valley where she went to high school, and transferred to Utah Valley University.
“There was some emotional stuff going on,” Sanders said. “There was some homesickness going on.”
Five important players. Five crucial losses.
Losing all five starters would be difficult in any year, but the added uncertainty brought on by the pandemic only added stress to Sanders and company. Fortunately for SUU, Sanders has remained steady at the helm and continues to face each new challenge head-on.
“I want players who are going to be happy and who are going to have a great experience,” Sanders said.
In June, Sanders announced four new additions to the roster that are set to make immediate impacts.
Senior guard Liz Graves, sister to sophomore guard Madelyn Eaton, transferred from Weber State to play for Sanders. Graves led the Wildcats in scoring last season.
“Liz is playing great for us,” Sanders said. “It’ll be good to have that experience on the floor.”
Junior guard Cherita Daugherty joined the team from the JUCO ranks after transferring from Lower Columbia College in Washington. She has great size for a point guard (5’10”) and shot 42% from beyond the arc last season.
“[Daughtery] has stepped in and filled that point guard spot. She has the ability to score, she’s a playmaker, she makes great reads, she’s fast, she defends.”
Redshirt Freshman Lizzy Williamson, a 6’5” center transferred to SUU from USU. Originally from Australia, Williamson is a dominant presence down low. Sanders said she was thrilled with the addition as “she blocks everything.”
Sanders’ daughter Sam Johnston, who won back-to-back 4A UHSAA state championships at Cedar High, also committed to play for the Thunderbirds early in the signing period. A high-level player, Johnston graduated high school a year early to begin training with the team.
“Sam is a great teammate and everyone’s biggest fan.”
Sanders eventually added five more recruits to the roster, bringing the number of new faces to nine, a number rarely seen at this level.
Among the other newcomers are another junior college transfer in forward Bryar Tronnier, and three more freshmen: guard Dayla Ballena and forwards Pyper Thornberry and Kinsley Barrington, who is going to “see a lot of time” this season, according to Sanders.
In September, Sanders promoted Katie Gruys to Associate Head Coach. In her first season as an assistant coach at SUU, Gruys helped the team more than double their win total from the previous season.
“Katie is so full of energy and is a great asset to our program,” Sanders said. “She’s great at what she does and I want to keep her here as long as possible.”
As the team got back to practice, Sanders remained calm and led her team along as they all endured unique challenges only COVID-19 could provide.
The team has to wear masks to practice. They are encouraged to limit social time with others outside of the team. All the while, the season itself was never a sure thing.
“The hardest part has been the not knowing if we are going to have a season,” Sanders said. “But the girls have adjusted really well, despite wearing masks to practice.”
Sanders also isn’t letting the loss of six key players destract from what she’s set to accomplish this season.
“Losing [Cardenas]… is hard. She was such a huge part of our success,” Sanders said. “(But) I feel like we are in a great spot. Our chemistry is on point and we have some really good pieces in place.”
Don’t be too surprised if the game plan looks a little different this season, either.
“We’re going to look to play up tempo. We have some guards that are really fast and we have some post players that can really run the floor.”
With the new game plan on offense, Sanders looks to make an even bigger impact on the other end of the floor.
“Defensively we look really good right now,” Sanders said. “We are going to be more of a pressure team than we have in the past.”
Ultimately, this may be a bit of a rebuilding year with many new faces, but Sanders still expects her team to compete.
“We have to be patient. It’s going to take a little bit of time to come all together,” Sanders explained. “But the expectation to compete every game and win every game is still there.”
Since their non-conference opener on November 25 against the University of Utah in Salt Lake City was canceled, the T-Birds are next set to lace-up for the on Thursday, December 3, in Cedar City against Montana.
Story by: Kelton Jacobsen with Connor Sanders
Photo by: Mitchell Quartz