“This is the first year that we have truly had seniors, players that have been with us for four years” explained Payne. “We have a really nice senior class, who are showing great leadership with our young players. We are further ahead in everything that we are doing because they have been here for three full years and so our progression has been a lot quicker than usual.”
Being able to lean on the experience that many of the athletes have gained over the past few years should definitely translate into the team’s success on the court. Even with last season’s successes, Coach Payne still sees areas where she expects the Thunderbirds to improve.
“I expect us to take care of the ball better. That is a very big focus for us. We did score well last year, but we turned the ball over too much,” stated Payne. “I think that we will have great balance this year. I expect that some nights we might have great perimeter play and others we will be better inside.”
The offense will once again feature junior guard Hailey Mandelko, who returns after leading the T-Birds in scoring during each of the last two seasons. Also back at the point is four-year senior and explosive scorer Andrea Jones.
“We have seen Hailey as a freshman, then as a player recovering from a torn ACL. What you see this year will be glimpses of her true potential,” commented Payne. “Drea really has the potential to be special this year. She is different than everyone else on our team in that she really has the ability to penetrate and create shots for other people.”
Also on the guard line will be junior Desiree Jackson who gives Southern Utah a versatile scorer and sophomore Ashleigh Munns who provides a solid outside shooter.
“Des had to get used to wearing a knee brace, which can affect your balance. Things just don’t feel the same as they always have, but she had a great spring and summer and is playing very well,” explained Payne. “Ashleigh has gotten a lot stronger, and is a great shooter. She has a really long wingspan which allows her to get her hands on balls defensively.”
Two more backcourt players who will not see time on the court this year but will still be an integral part of the team are senior DJ Norman and redshirting freshman Madison Wright.
“DJ has taken on more of a coaching role this year. She understands everything we do after being here for four years and really knows what things are supposed to look like both on and off the court . DJ will be instrumental in helping our younger players get caught up to speed,” explained Payne. “Madi is one of the most highly recruited players we’ve had here at SUU. She’s working extremely hard with her rehab and we will expect big things from her.”
The T-Birds possess some versatility and experience on the wing beginning with Marquelle Funk. Alongside the returning starter are transfer Maylinn Smith and freshman Mary Klapperich as well as Marissa Robbins who returns from a midseason injury.
“Marquelle is shooting the ball really well, and she has gotten stronger. She seems more comfortable, she makes good decisions, is very long and plays very hard,” described Payne. “Maylinn brings a great amount of leadership. She understands the game very well and has a very high basketball IQ. Mary is a big, strong shooter with a very good skill set for her size. Marissa is a phenomenal athlete which she really uses to her advantage.“
Southern Utah will also hold a strong set of post players, beginning with four-year senior Carli Moreland and returner Lori Parkinson who saw a significant amount of minutes during her freshman campaign.
“I believe that Carli is potentially one of the best post players in the Big Sky Conference. Her patience and understanding of the post has grown exponentially during the offseason and she has expanded her range so she is really going to be able to score,” commented Payne. “Lori is so athletic that it raises her game to a different level. We have seen a huge progression in what she is able to do with the basketball. She is rebounding really well and she is scoring the ball well. Lori is our most vocal defensive player, which really helps us on that end of the court.”
Complimenting the frontcourt are freshman forward Jessica Richardson and junior center Brenna Gates. Both are expected to make big contributions inside.
“Jessica is so strong naturally and has a really great court demeanor. She is calm and patient and is a great teammate,” stated Payne. “Brenna is really strong right now. She is scoring the ball and rebounding at a high clip. Her confidence has grown tremendously, and being that there are only four post players on our roster so they are getting a lot of reps each day.”
The collection of talent, experience and athleticism is sure to produce a level of team that fans should look forward to seeing at SUU. The Big Sky preseason polls acknowledged the team’s potential as the coaches predicted a sixth-place finish and return trip to the conference tournament while the media had the team slated two spots back picking Southern Utah to finish eighth. The Thunderbirds have been building for a year like this and definitely have high expectations heading into the season.
“There are times already that we are playing really great basketball. We definitely look like a veteran team right now, which will help us throughout the year and handle the adversity and other things that come up,” stated Payne. “I think with our experience, I would say we are the most talented team we have ever had. We can do a little bit of everything, but, as always, we want to be tough, competitive and the hardest working team.”
The season will open on the 30th of this month when the T-Birds host Dixie State in exhibition play. More information about SUU basketball and how to purchase tickets for the games can be found at www.suutbirds.com.