BELTON, Texas- UMHB head women’s basketball coach Mark Morefield does not shy away from scheduling a challenging non-conference schedule.
Even with D-III women’s basketball limited to just five non-conference games this season, that did not stop the head coach from putting together what might be one of the toughest opening weekends of any team in the South Region.
The Crusaders, who received 17 votes in the D3hoops.com Preseason Top 25 Poll, open the 2021-22 regular season this weekend, hosting reigning Southern Athletic Association (SAA) champion Rhodes on Saturday before tipping off against defending Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC) champ Trinity (TX) Sunday afternoon. ETBU, ranked No. 2 in the nation, will also be in attendance, though the ASC rivals will not face off until later in the season.
“You have three conference winners and then ETBU,” Morefield said this week. “If you look around, it’s probably one of the better preseason tournaments as far as quality of teams. It should be good basketball.”
He noted that “it might be a little sloppy” because it is so early in the season, but playing early is something he thinks the Cru will use to its advantage. Tipping off in the first week of November allows UMHB to reflect and improve on its performance before it takes the court next in Colorado for a Thanksgiving weekend tournament.
“Obviously with the conference schedule the way it is, and being we have only five non-conference games now, it isn’t the most ideal thing,” Morefield said. “But playing early doesn’t bother us. This is the third week of practice, we’ve had two scrimmages and I think, just breaking up the monotony, [it is good to play someone other than your own team]. From a teaching standpoint, we can see things, correct things and show things via film to the players.”
In addition to the improvement that will come from the opening weekend’s games, facing two high-quality opponents is sure to boost UMHB’s strength of schedule, and has the potential to go a long way when the regional rankings come out in February.
“We always try to go based on strength of schedule,” Morefield said. ‘The big picture is not so much where you are in November, it’s where you’re at in March.
“We’d rather be prepared and ready to win another conference championship, be the first team in ASC women’s basketball history to win three straight, [than win easy games in November]. I think you have to put yourself aside as a program and challenge yourself.”
His thought process is that, where UMHB is at, consistently competing for a spot in the NCAA tournament, there is a need to challenge their caliber of play against some of the best the nation has to offer.
“For where we want to go, we want to be challenged,” Morefield said. “We don’t want false hope in getting wins and not challenging ourselves. Everytime we step out is preparation for the big picture, and that is competing for making it to the national championship game.”
The Cru’s roster features nine returners, as well as 11 young, yet talented freshmen. Four transfers are also set to add to UMHB’s depth. In fact, Morefield noted that he could put a different starting five on the floor each game, and still have the same high-level play.
“We could put out different lineups if we wanted to every night,” Morefield said with a laugh, “and not miss a beat.”
In addition to the upperclassmen, four freshmen return who saw significant improvement and playing time over the course of last season. That sophomore core is composed of post players Kaitlyn Kollmorgen and Meagan Johnson, forward Ashley Faux, and guard Cheyanne Bonilla. Morefield said the work each of them put in this offseason has been seen in these early weeks of practice.
“I know all four of them are going to play contributing roles,” Morefield said. “You can tell that they’ve put the time in to become a better basketball player this offseason, because of where their game is at, and their confidence level is at. What they’ve done to become a better player, and a better athlete is just on a whole nother level.”
Replacing Hannah Eggleston and Taylor Kollmorgen in the post have been huge question marks this offseason. Eggleston was the only player on the roster to have started all 21 games a year ago, averaging 9.7 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. She was only a sophomore last season, but degree requirements did not allow her to return this year. Kollmorgen, a graduate transfer from Houston Baptist, started 15 games, leading the team in boards (7.6 RPG) and adding 7.3 points per contest.
While the play of Eggleston and Kollmorgen will indeed be missed, Morefield said earlier in the week that he felt his depth at the 5 position is the most it has ever been.
“I think the biggest thing is, I feel like our posts are better,” Morefied said. “Kaitlyn Kollmorgen has really put time and effort into this offseason. She’s playing at a different level. She’s like a gazelle, her athleticism is unbelievable.
“Catherine Kaiser is a 6’3 post. Unless we’re playing a power five team, I don’t see anybody we go against who is going to be able to stop a 6’3 post player. She’s got the height and she’s got the length.
“And Jayden Widener was an all-region junior college transfer and she can control the offensive glass.
“This is probably the most depth we’ve had at the post position, and all of them can hold their own.”
That depth will not wait long to be tested. The season opener is just three days away. Despite being back-to-back ASC tournament winners and handing the nation’s No. 2 team its only loss of last season, UMHB came in fourth in the ASC Preseason Poll, and remains unranked nationally. It is the fuel to the fire for a program who has already proved the doubters wrong on multiple occasions.
“Whether people don’t want to put us in the top 25, or in the top two in conference, it just fuels our fire,” Morefield said. “Programs are living off their past history, but you look at what we’ve accomplished in our last four years here, our girls know there’s a slight towards that. That just motivates them even more. Our girls’ hunger and fire is at an all-time high where they’re going to go out every night and show, ‘This is who we are and if you don’t respect us now, you will by the time the buzzer sounds.’”
Riley Zayas is the managing editor of True To The Cru. He has worked in sports journalism since 2016 and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter, @ZayasRiley.