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Basketball: Pioneers working in newcomers

Profile image for By Randy Cummings / For the Denton Record-Chronicle
By Randy Cummings / For the Denton Record-Chronicle

On paper and upon first glance, the TWU basketball team appears to be facing some major challenges, if not headaches, heading into the 2012-13 season.

Just three players from last year’s team — only one of whom could be considered a regular starter — are back in this year. There are no seniors on the team and no freshmen.

Last year’s senior point guard is no longer around to orchestrate the floor, and the Pioneers’ most dangerous outside scoring threat did not return. This year’s mix will include seven newcomers, all transfers from other programs.

Fortunately for TWU, games aren’t played on paper, giving sixth-year head coach Beth Jillson reason to believe her unique squad can come together to make the season one worth remembering.

She and her staff have spent the bulk of the offseason fitting the pieces to this year’s puzzle together, and they’ll begin to see results Tuesday night when the Pioneers open the season at Ouachita Baptist.

“We’ve got a lot of good pieces to the puzzle, but it’s going to be a matter of coming together and jelling as a team,” said Jillson, who became TWU’s all-time winningest coach last season. “It’s going to take some time.

“It’s a work in progress,” she added. “Our mentality right now is we have to get better every day. We don’t have time to waste.”

Every position on the floor is up for grabs. And with just 10 players on the roster, every Pioneer figures to get plenty of opportunities to show what she can do to contribute to the team’s success. Jillson plans to rely on all 10 players often.

The rebuilding Pioneers have a core group of junior guards Tabbatha Thurmond and Taylor Swift and sophomore guard Toree Mason back from last year. Thurmond is the most experienced of the trio, having played in 26 games with 19 starts. She was fifth on the team in scoring (7.9 points per game), second in 3-point field goals (18) and third in assists (44).

Swift and Mason saw limited action in 19 and 14 games, respectively, a year ago. Mason provided 3.4 points a game while Swift chipped in with 2.0.

“In the offseason after last year, we talked about the things we needed from them,” Jillson said of her returning players. “I think our returners know that leadership is key. I felt that was one of the things we lacked last year, so it’s an essential part of what we need this year.”

The Pioneers will need to fill the vacancies left by departing point guard Cambria Smith, who dished out a team-leading 196 assists last season, and 3-point specialist Brittany Nuzum, who dropped in 67 treys a year ago.

That’s where the seven newcomers come into play. All have collegiate experience, including two transfers from Lamar and one apiece from Tulsa, Texas-San Antonio and North Texas. That experience, plus the fact that for the first time in Jillson’s career she has three players measuring 6 feet or taller, should help with the transition.

“I really like what I’m seeing,” Jillson said. “We have the three returning players who know what we want and what our expectations are. With the seven newcomers, there’s a learning curve. But I appreciate their mentality and their work ethic.

“I’m confident we’re going to fix the little things and get on track.”

Two newcomers, junior Rebekah Cluley (Blinn) and sophomore Barbara-Scott Kolb (UNT), have emerged as the tandem likely to handle the point guard position. Cluley is the more vocal of the two, but both are learning their new role.

The presence of 6-1 Ria Pateraki and 6-0 Kaitlyn Waller at forward along with 6-6 center Mary Kovtun should give the Pioneers a height advantage inside. Pateraki, a native of Greece, and Kovtun, who is from Ukraine, played at Lamar before transferring to TWU. Waller was a two-time all-district standout at Frisco before beginning her collegiate career at Southeastern Louisiana.

“We need to get the ball inside; that’s where it needs to be,” Jillson said. “That’s always been my philosophy. Those 6-footers need to be aggressive and ready to battle inside. But then we’ve also got a bunch of versatile players who can also play inside. Amanda Mason [Tulsa], Rachel Schlosser [UTSA] and Tab can play inside or out. We have some weapons that I feel we can do a lot of different things with.”

Another weapon Jillson hopes to feature is a stronger and tougher team, thanks to the players working with strength and conditioning specialist Bryan Kegans of Guyer. Kegans coaches with Jillson’s husband, Zane, at Guyer and offered his help in establishing and overseeing a weight program for the Pioneers.

Jillson already has seen encouraging signs from her players’ extra work in weight room.

“It’s great for them to hear a different voice,” she said. “He’s really challenged them in the weight room, which is good. That’s made them come together as a team. And it’s helped us as coaches see who’s going to fight and who’s going to fold. There’s a lot of fight in this team, which is fun to see.”

Considering the Pioneers are missing the top four scorers, top three rebounders and top two assists leaders from a year ago, Jillson remains optimistic.

“It’s going to be a process,” she said. “There’s going to be a learning curve. But you have to stay optimistic and confident in knowing that good results are going to happen if you’re working hard every day.”

Following Tuesday’s road opener, TWU will make its home debut by hosting the Marriott Champions Circle Pioneer Premiere on Saturday and Sunday at Kitty Magee Arena.