Like a puzzle that must be put together each season, the pieces that make up the 2013-14 TWU basketball team seem to be fitting together nicely.
Unlike a year ago, the Pioneers have a quality core of seven returning letter winners, a solid group of four seniors providing leadership, a pair of transfers who appear ready to make an immediate impact and an incoming class of five freshmen around which the program can build for the future.
Perhaps most important, TWU has a full roster of 15 players at its disposal, which means more competitive practices and more depth to utilize during games — two things missing last season.
“It’s great to have 15 players, especially in practice,” said seventh-year head coach Beth Jillson. “Our practices this year have been really competitive, and I feel like we’ve got a lot more depth.
“You can’t do anything about last year,” she said. “We’ve just got to move forward.”
In moving forward, the Pioneers can close the book on a 2012-13 season in which a limited roster of 10 players was reduced to nine after an early season-ending injury. Additional injuries during the season often left the Pioneers with a three-player bench.
As the Pioneers prepare to open the season at 7 p.m. Monday at home against Ouachita Baptist, they’ll go to battle with more weapons available: inside scoring, perimeter shooting, ball handlers to run an up-tempo offense and plenty of bench help to keep fresh players on the court.
“Last year was definitely very trying,” said senior guard Taylor Swift, the last remaining player from TWU’s Lone Star Conference championship season of three years ago. “It was hard not to be negative, but this year we’ve got a bigger bench and we’ve got more heart and drive.
“Our energy, our passion and our commitment is right where it needs to be.”
The Pioneers return their top three scorers in senior guard Rebekah Cluley (9.8 points per game), junior guard Toree Mason (9.3) and junior forward Ria Pateraki (8.9). The 6-foot-1 Pateraki led the team in rebounding (5.6) while Cluley led in assists (84) and junior guard Barbara-Scott Kolb was the top thief with 40 steals.
Also back is 6-6 center Mary Kovtun, whose presence in the paint gives TWU an imposing defensive stopper and valuable rebounder. Senior forward Kaitlyn Waller, at 5-11, also returns to bolster the Pioneers’ inside attack.
“We have bigs and we have numbers,” Cluley said. “We have people who want to run and get out there. I think we’re going to be very diverse, and it’s going to show.”
Jillson and her team say the chemistry of this year’s players is much better than a year ago, when three Pioneers didn’t even live in Denton.
“I’ve been real impressed with the chemistry they’ve shown this early on,” Jillson said. “We return a lot of experience from last year. With them playing in this conference and knowing what it’s all about, that should make us better this year.”
“We love each other and we want to spend time together,” Cluley added. “I think that definitely carries over to the court.”
The Pioneers’ depth has been bolstered by the addition of two transfers from Division I programs. Junior Ashley Salazar, a 5-7 forward from McNeese State, will strengthen TWU’s perimeter attack with her 3-point shooting ability. At 5-9, sophomore forward Danielle Westerfield, who arrives from Northwestern State, provides an inside presence and a capable outside jumper.
Jillson also is excited about the potential of true freshman point guard Kenesha Saygo. Saygo, 5-7, is an athletic, left-handed ball handler from Killeen who should fit in with TWU’s up-tempo attack.
“Ashley is a great outside shooter,” Jillson said. “She has range and is going to stretch the defense with her 3-point shooting ability. She works hard, runs the floor and plays great defense.
“Danielle has a great post presence. She’s very aggressive inside. She’s so strong and great at using her body to score. She’s very smart inside.”
TWU’s challenging schedule is highlighted by three tournaments, including its own two-day Marriott Champions Circle Pioneer Premiere on Nov. 23 and 24. The Pioneers open Lone Star play Dec. 5 at Midwestern State.
“The nice thing this year is that we’re very balanced,” Jillson said. “Our returners have done a great job of setting the tone in practice and being good examples. They’re very hungry to win games.”
Taylor High takes over as Jillson’s top assistant coach, replacing Michael Madrid, who left after three years to take the head coaching position at Paris Junior College. High was an assistant at Pratt Community College for two seasons after serving on the staff at Dodge City Community College for three years.