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Tue, Oct. 22

Winter Preview: Coaches’ poll picks Eagle women to finish 2nd in Cal-Pac

Embry Riddle’s Allese Williams looks to shoot in their final practice Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017, in Prescott. (Les Stukenberg/Courier)

Embry Riddle’s Allese Williams looks to shoot in their final practice Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017, in Prescott. (Les Stukenberg/Courier)

Embry-Riddle’s women’s basketball team won 14 games in its inaugural 2016-2017 season with 10 freshmen on an 11-player roster. It was a pretty significant accomplishment for a squad that also missed qualifying for the California Pac Conference Tournament by one game.

In 2017-2018, second-year coach Becky Burke returns all 11 of those players, 10 of whom are sophomores, as well as senior swing Kylee Reibel. Only two Eagles players are new in freshman guard Bethany Wolph and freshman swing Megan Timmer, both of Valley Christian in Chandler.

This situation would seem to bode well for ERAU, which routed Southwest (New Mexico), 99-62, in its season opener Oct. 21 in Hobbs, New Mexico. The Eagles (1-0), who have a 13-player roster and have practiced five weeks together, host tough-and-athletic Bethesda University for their home opener at 6 p.m. today, Oct. 25, at the ERAU Activity Center in Prescott.

“It’s really going to gauge kind of where we’re at for me as a coach,” Burke said of the Bethesda contest.

The 2017-2018 preseason Cal Pac Coaches’ Poll picked ERAU to finish second in the conference to defending league champion UC-Merced, which won the Cal-Pac tournament and advanced to NAIA Nationals this past winter. It’s a compliment to a college women’s basketball team that may be the youngest in the NAIA. Embry-Riddle’s difficult non-conference schedule should prepare it well for conference play.

“It’s very, very beneficial to have everybody returning,” said Burke, a pleasant, yet demanding mentor whose 2016-2017 team finished 14-12 overall, 8-5 in the Cal-Pac for fifth place (Top 4 teams reach the conference tournament). “We’ve been able to start a mile ahead of where we were able to start last year as far as the fundamentals and teaching our system, and just familiarity with the girls with each other.”

Burke hasn’t set a specific starting lineup. Instead, she said that she may have different starters from game to game. However, Burke will primarily lean on five sophomores, including point guard Haley Villegas, guard Danae Ruiz, forward Katana Martina (6-foot), post Allese Williams (6-foot) and swing Melissa Pfeifer, as well as the senior Reibel.

“Melissa Pfeifer is probably our highest-motor kid – she’s got a higher motor than anybody I’ve ever coached,” Burke said. “She’s a double-double every night.”

But don’t overlook Villegas, who’s one of the best defenders in the Cal Pac, and Ruiz, who earned All-Cal Pac First Team honors as a freshman.

“I’m expecting really big things from her, and so does everybody, quite frankly, in our league,” Burke said of Ruiz with a laugh. “She’s got a target on her back, and she knows that.”

Burke likes her frontcourt of Martina and Williams, which she says has “really improved,” and Pfeifer and Reibel. The coach said they cause match-up problems for opponents.

“We’ve realistically got five kids that on any night can go off and really hurt you,” Burke said.

Wolph, who’s competing for the third guard spot, “can flat out shoot it better than anybody I’ve seen in our league,” Burke said. Sophomore guards Jazlyn Maletino and Jenna Knudson are in that mix, too.

“It’s going to be who’s practicing well and a ‘what have you done for me lately’ kind of spot for us,” the coach added.

Embry-Riddle plays a disciplined brand of basketball on both ends of the floor. They execute, play hard and focus on fundamentals, Burke said.

“That’s one thing that every coach has always told me that we’ve played – ‘Man, your kids play hard,’ ” Burke added. “They play really, really hard, from tipoff to final buzzer. That in itself will win you a bunch of games, whether the shots are falling or not. They’re ready to go.”

Follow Doug Cook on Twitter @dougout_dc. Reach him at 928-445-3333 ext. 2039, or via email at dcook@prescottaz.com.

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