Last year was a storybook ending for the Golden Eagles. Seniors Kevi Luper and Jaci Bigham were sent out with the conference championship that had eluded them in years past.
This year’s goal is no different for the team. The only thing that’s changed are the faces on the court.
Only three players who saw court time last year have returned to the team. Seniors Christian Key and Sarah Shelton, along with junior Bernadett Balla, will lead the young team, including seven new freshmen.
Those three will be joined by junior Jenni Bryan, who redshirted last year after transferring from Oklahoma State University.
“All four of those players are the perfect leaders for this year’s squad because they tend to lead by example,” said second-year head coach Misti Cussen. “They’re giving those new faces people to emulate and it’s worked beautifully with this freshman class so far.”
The two seniors on the team, Key and Shelton, are expected to be the leaders from a performance standpoint as well.
Key will play a huge part in what ORU wants to do on the offensive side of the ball. She averaged 7.4 points per game in a role-player position last year, and is likely to be ORU’s leading scorer this season.
“She can beat you from the outside and she can beat you from the inside,” Bryan said. “If you’re going to stop her three-point game, she has a 15 foot range. She’s stepped up in practice [and] she comes ready to go every day.”
Shelton will anchor the Golden Eagles down low on both sides of the ball, especially on defense. Her season was highlighted by six blocks in the first half of the NCAA tournament game against Tennessee.
“With her length and strength on the low post I think we’re going to be dominating down there,” Balla said. “She really brings joy as well. She smiles all the time.”
Coach Cussen emphasized the defensive impact that the senior center will have.
“She’s definitely our defensive anchor,” coach Cussen said. “When we extend and do things defensively it makes such a difference having Sarah down low. It gives our guards the ability to take chances.”
In order for the Golden Eagles to be successful, they will need contributions from their large freshmen class, which includes Kaylan Mayberry, a Tulsa native who is expected to play point guard most of the year.
Coach Cussen has high expectations for Mayberry’s ORU career.
“I think [she] is going to have a great four-year career here at ORU,” Cussen said. “We’ll give her some room to have some freshman moments from time to time, but I think she will establish herself as one of the best point guards in our conference.”
“Maybe they are freshmen, but they don’t play like it,” Shelton said. “They play like they have played a few years. [They] come in, they’re ready to go. They’re on top of things.”
ORU is in for a challenging start to the season. They face more than 10 teams who played in the NCAA tournament last year, including Kansas, Nebraska and Navy.
Coach Cussen said she designed the schedule to be difficult for a reason.
“I’m not hired to go undefeated in the non-conference,” Cussen said. “I believe that putting an extremely difficult non-conference schedule together improves my program’s chances of winning those conference regular season titles and tournaments.”
It will be Cussen’s second year as head coach of the Golden Eagles. Cussen said the experience from the first year helps relieve some of the pressure.
“I’m glad to get the first year under my belt,” Cussen said. “It’s good for our staff to have a full year together for our cohesiveness. I’m not going into the season with any self-imposed pressures or externally imposed pressures either.”
The team will have a different look this year. More roster depth will allow Cussen to go deeper into the bench. As a result, ORU will look to be more athletic and play more up-tempo offense.
“Last year we just didn’t have the depth with the number of players to maintain that intensity and I believe we do this year,” Cussen said. “We’ll push the tempo a lot. It will be a little bit more of a quicker game for us.”
Part of that different look for ORU will mean less emphasis on one player scoring a lot of points for ORU.
“Instead of having two scorers that have double digits we may have four. Nobody may have 20 or 25 points a game, but we might have four that have 10 or 11. There’s a balance that comes about and that’s a good thing.”
Despite the offseason losses, ORU was still picked second in the preseason Southland Conference polls, behind Stephen F. Austin. ORU swept SFA in the two regular season meetings last season.
Cussen is confident that the team will be able to find success with their new lineup of players.
“I think the winning will take care of itself if we are putting the product on the floor that we need to.”