Picked to win the Big Sky Conference, the Eastern Washington Eagles went from soaring favorites to the stark reality of dealing with young players and an injury to a key senior.
The Eagles crashed to earth with a 0-5 start to the non-conference season and sputtered to a 4-5 record to start the conference play. But Coach Wendy Schuller inserted a familiar name to the starting lineup and the Eagles have started winning.
Since early January, Schuller has started freshman Jade Redmon and the former Mead star is now averaging more assists per game than her older sister, Gonzaga senior Jazmine Redmon.
“We were very excited when she decided to come to Eastern,” Schuller said of Jade Redmon. “She’s grown a lot. She’s become more and more comfortable with our system.”
With 5-7 Redmon in the lineup, the Eagles (12-11, 8-6) have gone 4-1 in February to inch up the Big Sky standings.
“She’s done very well on the defensive end, which gets things going for us offensively. She’s looking for her shots and her assists are going up,” the coach continued. “She works as hard as anyone. We obviously are elated with her.”
As Redmon has progressed, Schuller has also had to jumble her lineup to make up for the lost minutes for 6-2 senior center Laura Hughes, who hurt a knee in late November and has been “gutting it out” until she can get surgery after the season.
“She’s one of the most dominant big kids in our league,” Schuller said. “She was on a tear until she hurt her knee.”
While Hughes continues to play, the injury has limited her minutes. Schuller has moved 6-1 forward Mellissa Williams inside and has played 6-foot Aubrey Ashenfelter at power forward.
“As we’ve gotten more into conference play … I’ve been happy with our progress,” Schuller said. “Early in the year, we weren’t happy with what we were doing defensively. We’ve done better as the season has gone on.”
The Eagles, currently in a two-team tie for fourth place in the league, are 10-2 at home, including an 85-84 win over an Idaho team that only last week lost its first game in the Western Athletic Conference.
But the Eagles are also 2-9 on the road or at neutral sites.
“I think there were more question marks about us than most people thought,” Schuller said. “We knew we had young players we were going to rely on to succeed. Not a lot of young teams win on the road. We don’t get to go to Malibu or Los Angeles. We get to go to Greely and Grand Forks.”
The Eagles finish with three in Cheney and three on the road.
Washington State seems ready to break out one moment and lose its way the next.
The Cougars won five straight to open Pac-12 play and also lost five straight, including a home loss to Utah.
But the Cougars avenged the Utah loss on the Utes’ home court last week and they won a nail biter on the road Sunday against a Colorado team that was once ranked.
And just like Eastern, Washington State has relied on a player from Spokane to lead the way.
Junior guard Tia Presley (Gonzaga Prep) scored 32 points in each win this past week, giving the Cougars (8-6, 14-12) the most overall and conference wins since the 1995-96 season.
“People didn’t recruit her hard in the Pac-12. They thought she was too small,” coach June Daugherty said of Presley. “She goes out to prove people wrong and have fun doing it.”
The close game at Colorado may have lasting effects, Daugherty said.
The players faced nine plays in the final two minutes where the game could have gone either way.
“A lot of these games in the Pac-12 have come down to the last possession,” she said. “I think that speaks well to how mentally tough this group has become. This weekend helped us a lot. It definitely was a confidence builder.”