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Eastern Washington University Basketball

‘It’s not like we’re starting over’: Amid huge losses, Eastern Washington basketball coach Joddie Gleason leans on her program’s culture

By Dan Thompson The Spokesman-Review

Given the success Eastern Washington’s women’s basketball team enjoyed last season, and given the fact the team’s entire coaching staff is back, it would seem improbable that the Eagles experienced as much roster turnover as they did this offseason.

While it’s not entirely a rebuild – eight players return from last year’s 29-6 team that reached the NCAA Tournament – the Eagles are looking to replace 85% of their scoring production from last season.

Some of that was expected with the departure of seniors Jacinta Buckley (9.9 points per game), Jamie Loera (13.4) and Milly Knowles (5.4), a trio that contributed in various ways. Loera was Big Sky MVP and the conference’s defensive player of the year, Knowles became the Eagles’ career leader in games played (144) and Buckley powered the Eagles to a Big Sky Tournament title.

But the departures of another trio via the transfer portal – Aaliyah Alexander (14.5 points per game), Jaleesa Lawrence (10.6) and Jaydia Martin (6.8) – was less expected.

“It’s very challenging when entering seniors choose to leave for their final years,” EWU head coach Joddie Gleason said .

At this point, the Eagles will return just one player who scored more than 100 points last season. That’s senior-to-be Alexis Pettis, who scored 139 points in 33 games.

Gleason said she will be back for a fourth season with the Eagles, as will associate head coach Skip Gleason (her husband), assistant coach Brandon Morrison and assistant coach Jordan Loera (Jamie Loera’s oldest sister).

An offseason of recruiting brought in five new players, including two transfers and three freshmen.

Peyton Howard, a Central Valley High School graduate, started 94 of 113 career games at Seattle University over the past four seasons, the first of which was the COVID season of 2020-21, giving her one more year of eligibility.

The guard averaged 27.1 minutes and seven points per game in her time at Seattle, but Gleason said Howard wanted to be closer to home and finish her master’s degree.

“She’s going to help us immediately,” Gleason said of Howard.

The other transfer is Paris Kirk, who played 42 games off the bench at Robert Morris (Pennsylvania) over the past two seasons. Originally from Kelowna, British Columbia, it’s a move that also brings Kirk closer to home.

“She’s a high-motor (player who) can play the 4 or the 5 and can run in transition,” Gleason said. “We love how hard she works, and she’ll help us in that regard.”

The Eagles also signed freshmen Jaecy Eggers (Woodinville, Washington) and Kourtney Grossman (Billings) during the early period, and added Emily McElmurry from Missoula in April.

Still, that the Eagles won’t have Alexander, Lawrence or Martin came as a bit of a surprise.

Alexander, a first-team All-Big Sky selection last season, is transferring to UNLV with two years remaining – though she spent four seasons at Eastern. Alexander played in 2020-21, then redshirted in 2021-22 while rehabbing from a knee injury before playing in each of the past two seasons.

Lawrence started 25 games as a true freshman in 2021-22 and was named second-team All-Big Sky this season, her third playing in the program. She is transferring to High Point in North Carolina, a team that won the Big South Conference regular-season title last year.

Martin, who came to Eastern as a freshman with Lawrence and was the Big Sky Freshman of the Year in 2022, announced her transfer to Sacramento State.

“It’s extremely hard not to take it personally” when players transfer, Gleason said, but she talked to friends in the coaching world and noted, “It’s just the nature of the beast this day in age.

“Every team in the nation and every conference is getting impacted by the (transfer) portal, so we just try not to make it about us. It’s more about the need that they are searching for something that’s different.”

Instead of focusing on those who have left, Gleason said she is focused on the players who are – and will be – at Eastern.

“We have some tremendous players and people on our roster,” she said. “They are fired up. It’s not like we’re starting over. … Our culture has been great and they know what we expect, and they’re excited to get to know their new teammates.”