Season preview: Women’s basketball gears up for first season in the WAC

After finishing third in the 2021-2022 Big Sky Conference regular season standings, the Southern Utah University women’s basketball team transitioned into the WAC, ranked sixth in the preseason polls. Tomekia Whitman earned First Team preseason honors and Cherita Daughtery made the Second Team. 

The Thunderbirds entered last year’s Big Sky Tournament with a first-round bye but fell short in the quarterfinals against the University of Idaho Vandals, 77-64. The team went 18-12 in their final season, competing in the BSC.  

Notable losses

Darri Dotson, 6-1, F/C, 10.9 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 1.3 APG, 27.9 MPG 

Dotson started 28 out of 30 games for head coach Tracy Sanders in her redshirt senior year. In her final season, she led the team in scoring at 10.9 points per game and rebounding with 8.1 per game. Dotson was a featured member of the SUU women’s basketball program, having played a major role on five teams over seven years.         

Mandy Eaton, 5-8, G, 8.9 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 1.4 APG, 23.4 MPG 

Easton was the Thunderbirds’ microwave off the bench, averaging just under nine points per game. Eaton decided to forgo her remaining eligibility and is now attending Brigham Young University as a member of their track and field team. A trusted role player, the team will look to multiple players to fill Eaton’s void.

Natalia Otkhmezuri, 5-8, G, 6.6 PPG, 1.5 RPG, 0.4 APG, 16.5 MPG

Otkhmezuri shot 38.7% from three last season, which was the second best for the Thunderbirds. Unable to secure a featured role at SUU, Otkhmezuri transferred to Iona University.

Rita Satini, 5-8, G, 1.5 PPG, 0.6 RPG, 0.3 APG, 7.8 MPG

Satini struggled to see the court last season with SUU after averaging over 20 minutes per game the year before. She transferred to Westminster College. 

Familiar faces

Lizzy Williamson, 6-5, C, 9.8 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 1.2 APG, 24.6 MPG 

Heading into her junior season, Williamson will resume her role as the starting center for the Thunderbirds. Averaging one steal and nearly two blocks per game, she has become an intimidating force in the paint for the Thunderbird defense. Last year did a lot for her self-confidence and offensive game, so fans should expect Williamson to make strides in every category this season.

Dayla Ballena, 5-8, G, 10.0 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 3.4 APG, 29.2 MPG

In her junior season, Ballena will be the primary playmaker for the Thunderbirds. She can lock down the perimeter and averaged a steal per game last year. She will be an intricate part of the team on both sides of the ball this season. 

Cherita Daugherty, 5-10, G, 10.6 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 3.1 APG, 29.1 MPG 

Daugherty is a creative wing that was the primary scoring option for the Thunderbird offense last season. She is also a versatile defender that can guard multiple positions, making her an instant start for coach Sanders.  

Sam Johnston, 6-0, G/F, 7.2 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 1.3 APG,  27.1 MPG 

Johnston can shoot the lights out. She is the best pure shooter on the team, maybe even in the WAC. Her shooting percentages speak for themselves, a whopping 92% from the free-throw line and 34% from beyond the arc. Improving defensively as last season went on, Johnston will likely start the year coming off the bench after suffering a minor injury in the offseason.  

Bryar Tronnier, 6-2, F/C, 1.6 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 0.3 BPG, 5.8 MPG 

Tronnier is a traditional back-to-the-basket big that is a high-level rebounder and screener. The senior post will have a chance to see more playing time if she can limit fouls and mental errors.

Alexa Lord, 5-9, G/F, 2.9 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 0.1 APG, 12.2 MPG

Senior Alexa Lord gives coach Sanders 110% at all times and is known as one of the hardest workers on the team. Effort combined with shooting 33% from three last year means Lord should continue to provide valuable minutes as a utility player for the Thunderbirds this year.

Aishah Anis, 5-7, G, 4.6 PPG, 1.7 RPG, 1.6 APG, 13 MPG

After suffering a season-ending injury and coming off multiple surgeries, Anis will most likely redshirt this season. This is a big blow for the sophomore guard and the Thunderbirds, as Anis was averaging 18.5 minutes and 7.2 points in the four games prior to her injury. 

Newcomers to the roster

Kinlee Sorensen, 5-9, G

Sorenson is coming off of a sensational season with Utah State University-Eastern. The junior guard averaged 13.8 points and 1.6 steals per game for the junior college. She also ranked 27th in the county in assist to turnover ratio at 2.05. Unfortunately, her status early in the season is up in the air due to a hand injury, reportedly.

Tomekia Whitman, 5-10, G/F, 12 PPG, 7 RPG, 2.3 APG, 33 MPG 

Whitman may be the best basketball player to play at SUU since assistant coach Hailey Mandelko was on the team. At Idaho State University, Whitman earned BSC Defensive Player of the Year and BSC First Team Conference. After a career year, she will see a lot of playing for the Thunderbirds in her senior season. 

Megan Jensen, 6-3, F/C, 6.1 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 1.1 APG, 17 MPG 

Jensen is a crafty post who has had success against SUU in the past for Utah Valley University. The senior will see a lot of playing time at forward and center this season. 

Jodi Noyes, 6-1, F/C, 13.5 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 1.4 APG, 23.1 MPG

Noyes is a physical big who will provide post depth for the Thunderbirds. Although the Lower Columbia Community College transfer had a great year, averaging 13.5 points and 6.6 rebounds, she likely won’t see much playing time early in the season.

Emmy Clarke, 5-7, G  

Clarke is the latest international player from Australia that SUU has added and spent last year redshirting. She has a bright future as a Thunderbird but will likely be used as a three-point specialist this year.

Lexi Jensen, 5-7, G 

Jensen could be the best freshman recruit of the Tracy Sanders era. The freshman from Herriman High School is a floor general and has the best chance of all the freshmen to get playing time early.

Ashley Banks, 6-5, C

Banks is a freshman center from Boise, Idaho. She is an intimidating defensive presence who averaged three blocks per game in high school. With a developing game, she will likely only see time in moments of major foul trouble.

What success looks like

The main priority for Sanders has been improving on defense to become a complete team. The WAC presents a new challenge for Sanders, and she believes that it is the toughest schedule since becoming the head coach.

“There’s some really good talent in this conference,” Sanders stated. “We’re going to have to be ready every game, focused and ready to go.”

The team has seven newcomers, many whom will be expected to make an instant impact if SUU expects to continue as they have in seasons past. The key transfers for SUU are Whitman and Jensen, who will be relied on early due to their versatility. The two come into a team that returns four players who saw significant time last year in  Williamson, Ballena, Johnston and Daugherty.

“Both Meg and Tomekia, being transfers, played at a high level; both of them were big contributors to teams they were on. They’re already coming in as leaders on our team,” Sanders said. “They are complemented by Cherita, Dayla, some people we’ve already had here. It’s just a really good mix.”

Williamson will be the starting center to fill out the starting five for SUU. This could be the deepest team that Sanders has had to work with at SUU. From freshman recruits to four-year starters, this team appears ready for the WAC. 

The SUU women’s basketball team will tip-off the 2022-2023 season against the University of New Mexico on Monday, Nov. 7, at 6:30 p.m. in the America First Event Center.

Article by: Chevy Blackburn
Photos by: SUU Athletics