It wasn’t the off-season that anybody in college basketball was accustomed to. The previous season was cut short, things got weird, and frankly, at times it seemed like there may not even be a season.
Nonetheless, the season is here, and the Cyclones – with four freshmen expected to be in the rotation regularly – are ready to be thrown into the fire with their first game on tap against Omaha (Wednesday @ Noon, ESPN+).
“They’re ready,” coach Bill Fennelly said. “Now, obviously when I say that, they haven’t played a college game yet. They are not scared of the moment. They don’t know what they don’t know, I guess.”
The group consists of Emily Ryan, Kylie Feuerbach, Lexi Donarski, and Ashley Joens’ sister, Aubrey – who will all play in guard positions for the Cyclones.
It will still be tough to get rolling – like in any year – but Fennelly said that he is satisfied with what he has seen from his team thus far.
“They’re skilled, they’re competitive, and they’re going to play,” Fennelly said. “They’re going to make great plays and they’re going to turn the ball over. Defense and learning the system is always hard, but they’re winners and they know exactly what they need to do. They just haven’t had to do it yet.”
Now, the start of the season was already going to look a bit different this year, but Iowa State had another wrench thrown into it on Monday evening when Fennelly announced he had come in contact with somebody that tested positive for COVID-19.
It comes along with a self-isolation period that Fennelly will follow for 14 days, shifting the head coaching duties to associate head coach Jodi Steyer.
“Obviously, it changes a lot of things, especially when you’re playing four freshmen and one of them is at point guard,” Assistant Coach Billy Fennelly said. “That’s an important position and he does a great job coaching it.”
Although, the Cyclones will have to just play one game with the cards they’ve been dealt. And maybe, this season, this will be a high number of players active. It’s just what they have to go through to get these games played.
That’s the most important thing in Bill’s mind, even though he won’t be on the bench on Wednesday.
“I think this year, winning and losing can be defined really by – you win if you get to play – and that’s what I want our players to do,” Bill said. “That’s been our focus from the very beginning. For their mental health and for their work, they need to go out and play when they can.”
That’s notably important for both the coaching staff as well as the players.
Rae Johnson said earlier in the year that the team’s goal was to follow the protocols as best as possible and remain healthy through the year.
Not to mention, while some teams may be finding excuses to miss games that they have a threat of losing, the Cyclones want to play as many as possible.
“Our players have done a phenomenal job sticking to protocols and doing everything in their power to play,” Billy said. “It doesn’t matter who’s on the court or how many players are out, if we have the personnel to play, we want to play.”
It’s safe to say from the tone of the message that the team will be trying to play and compete against any challenge that comes their way.
Omaha provides a unique one, even for a season opening matchup.
Head coach Carrie Banks will be at the helm for her first game with the program, after being hired in April.
“She’s never been a head coach, so you can’t really go back and watch video,” Bill said. “Our preparation has been really focused on us, leading up to (Monday). Today will look at some personnel clips from Omaha on last year. We’ve really tried to prepare for a little bit of everything, but it’s probably been 90% Iowa State centric and 10% Omaha personnel.”
That doesn’t veer far from a usual Fennelly team, either.
The long-tenured coach liked to focus on teaching the ‘Iowa State Way’ as he calls it and they’ll have some work to do like usual.
Maggie Espenmiller-McGraw will not be available on Wednesday, so the new blood we were already going to see is going to get some extra reps against the Mavericks.
“I think the biggest things are, you’re going to play four freshmen who have never played a college game,” Bill said. “Maggie (Espenmiller-McGraw) will not play Wednesday, so besides Rae (Johnson), you have no experience at guard. So, there’s going to be a lot of questions and we’re going to learn a lot Wednesday at noon. We’ll evaluate it afterward, but I couldn’t be more proud about the way they’ve handled themselves up to this point.”
Obviously, none of this is ideal for a team starting at No. 15 in the Associated Press rankings, but the squad has plans to battle this adversity, even if it’s a little extra.
Just know that when this team takes the court on Wednesday they’ll have accomplished a major goal that has long been wondered over the summer.
They’ll be playing a sanctioned, collegiate basketball game.
“We’ll live with the results,” Bill said. “The focus for us is giving these kids every chance they can to play the game.”
Iowa State Women’s Basketball November & December Schedule
Nov. 25 | vs. Omaha
Nov. 28 | @ South Dakota State
Dec. 02 | @ TCU
Dec. 06 | vs. No. 1 South Carolina
Dec. 09 | @ Iowa
Dec. 12 | vs. North Dakota State
Dec. 18 | vs. Kansas State
Dec. 22 | vs. Drake