App State women’s basketball will tip off the 2017-2018 season on Oct. 31 with a home exhibition against Tusculum College at 3 p.m. before hosting Georgia Tech on Nov. 10 to open the regular season.
“Opening up with a BCS opponent on our home court is a great opportunity for us,” head coach Angel Elderkin said. “Then, in less than 48 hours we go down to Radford, another postseason opponent, so right out of the gate we’re going to test our young team with two teams that have postseason experience.”
The Yellow Jackets finished 22-15 last season out of the ACC and were the Women’s National Invitation Tournament runner up, falling to Michigan after three overtime periods in the title game. The Highlanders compiled a 24-9 record last year that earned them a spot in the WNIT. They were also a perfect 13-0 at home, where App State will face them in the second game of the year.
The new-look Mountaineers are returning just one starter out of five players overall from last years squad that finished with a 12-19 overall record and a 6-12 mark in Sun Belt play.
“Every year is an opportunity for a fresh start and we had an opportunity this summer to really collaborate, re-think and re-teach the standards and culture of our program,” Elderkin said. “It’s been a really exciting journey so far.”
App State has eight newcomers to the program, five of which are freshmen, along with two junior college transfers and one Division 1 transfer that is ineligible for the 2017-2018 season due to NCAA transfer rules.
Both junior college transfers have something else in common: neither guard Nicola Mathews nor Anna Perez Gomez are from America, so they each have had to adjust to the changes a little more than the average newcomer.
Mathews came to the United States from Adelaide, Australia and to App State by way of the College of Central Florida. Gomez is originally from Canet De Mar, Spain and previously attended Eastern Wyoming College before coming to App.
“Coming from a different country is a bit of an adjustment because it’s a different style of game, it’s more controlled back in Australia, whereas here it’s a bit more fast paced and up-and-down,” Mathews said. “Being at junior college helped me a lot to get adjusted to the type of practices and everything.”
Not only do foreign players have a lot to learn about how the game is played here, American players and coaches can learn a lot from the styles and nuances that foreign players bring with them.
“For Anna, we’re playing a different kind of style [than she’s used to] so she’s kind of finally settling down,” Elderkin said. “She’s got high energy, she plays hard, she’s athletic. She’s just a competitor. Nic comes from an Australian background, they play with a 24-second clock. She’s another player that plays the point guard position who can stretch the D [defense] and I think she brings a sense of mental toughness to our team. She’s the type of kid whenever you walk in here, she’s in the gym.”
A team that has so many newcomers could be tough to work with right away and might take some time to get fully acclimated, but Elderkin and her staff worked hard to try and overcome those circumstances. And their efforts have worked.
“Our newcomers have really bought in, they don’t know anything else and that’s what I think has been great,” Elderkin said. “When you have a team that buys in, it makes for great practices, great energy and just an overall great foundation to our culture.”
While it’s true that the Mountaineers have a lot of new faces, not all of them are new.
Returning are senior leaders Madi Story and Katelyn Doub, both of whom came to Appalachian in Elderkin’s first year in Boone.
“It’s been tough, I really have had to step up in my leadership position because they are so young,” Story said, “but what’s great about our team is that everyone has really bought in, everyone has a great attitude about stuff. Even though they might not know a set or they might mess up on something as far as the system, they all really wanna win so I think that’s exciting.”
Story is the leader of the team and the lone returning starter for the Mountaineers. Last season, in her junior campaign, she started all 31 games and was the team’s leading scorer (13.3 points per game), rebounder (6.9 rebounds per game) and three-point shooter (38 threes made) and finished second on the team in assists (2.5 assists per game). The 5-foot-10-inch guard out of Maiden, North Carolina, recorded seven 20-point performances on the year, five double-doubles and was a third-team all-Sun Belt selection.
Another key returner is Sophomore Forward Bayley Plummer. Plummer appeared in all 31 games a season ago and averaged 4.3 points and 5.5 rebounds as a true freshman.
“Bayley is a completely different player than she was last season,” Elderkin said. “She has really shown a lot of improvement from freshman to sophomore year. She’s really dominated the paint so she’s definitely a big piece right now.”
There is a lot to look forward to this season for the Mountaineers and it provides a fresh start for the program as they will look to build off of their positives from last year.
One of the biggest positives for Elderkin, her players and everyone else involved with the program is the simple fact that she is there to coach. A season ago at this time, Elderkin was locked in a battle with endometrial cancer.
“I wake up every day with a different gratefulness. Some days when I’m writing the practice plan, I go back and think about a year ago,” Elderkin said. “The practice after fall break I remember how sick I was, but I also remember how bad practice was. This year I was just thinking ‘I don’t care how bad practice is, I’m just so happy to be able to be at practice and to be able to yell at them after because I have so much energy.’ I feel really good.”
Put all the talented young players, the returning leaders, along with a healthy head coach together and the outcome will be at the very least a basketball team that will be fun to keep up with as the season progresses.
Story By: Silas Albright, Sports Reporter
Photos By: Halle Keighton, Photo Editor