Mountaineers climbing to the top of RMAC

Subhead

Hoopsters off to hot start, look to keep momentum going after the break

Image
  • Hannah Cooper is building off her RMAC Freshman of the Year season from last year. The sophomore is leading the Mountaineers in scoring and assists, and is second on the team in rebounding. CU Athletics
    Hannah Cooper is building off her RMAC Freshman of the Year season from last year. The sophomore is leading the Mountaineers in scoring and assists, and is second on the team in rebounding. CU Athletics
  • Coach Lora Westling has her Mountaineers off to one of the best starts in program history. The Mountaineers are 4-0 and sit atop the league standings. Western Athletics
    Coach Lora Westling has her Mountaineers off to one of the best starts in program history. The Mountaineers are 4-0 and sit atop the league standings. Western Athletics
  • Samantha Coleman recently became the third leading 3-point shooter in Mountaineer history.
    Samantha Coleman recently became the third leading 3-point shooter in Mountaineer history.

Western Women’s Basketball — When Lora Westling came to Gunnison in 2016 to take the helm of the Western Colorado University women’s basketball team, she began doing what every new coach sets out to do.

Build a successful program.

That is a process. It usually takes time and it’s almost always a bumpy road. It’s become quite clear the Mountaineers are on the right path.

Coming off one of the most successful seasons in program history, with their first-ever berth into the NCAA-II national playoffs (which of course got cut short by COVID-19), this year’s team entered an uncertain year with very certain expectations. They were high.

So far, they have not been disappointed. The Mountaineers have raced out to a 4-0 official record, already with a big conference showdown victory on the road. And while it was only an exhibition game for them, last week Western traveled to the Air Force Academy in a pay-to-play game and came away with a stunning 77-70 victory against the Division I Falcons.

Westling, who is in her fifth season coaching Western, attributes a lot of the program’s recent success to the women who have been with her for every step of the journey.

“Four years ago we brought in a big group of freshmen who we thought we could develop to help us bring the program to where we thought it could go,” she explained. “This year’s seniors are those players. They have put in their time. They’ve invested in the program, in each other and the community. And that’s why a lot of special things are happening to them now.”

Those seniors are Jessie Erickson and Jadyn Kanzler, both of Cheyenne, Wyo.; Mikaela Parker of Calhan, Colo.; Samantha Coleman from Las Vegas, Nev.; and Katie Dalton of Magnolia, Texas.

Perhaps more important than rebound totals or 3-point field goal percentages, this group’s leadership has been most important off the court. That’s especially true in a year so wrought with the trickiness of navigating coronavirus protocols. (Western’s already had multiple games called off because their opponents had to cancel due to COVID-19 issues.)

“We’ve been very fortunate to stay healthy this entire semester, which isn’t easy,” Westling said. “That’s actually one of our greatest accomplishments.

“I am really proud of our kids. They’ve shown maturity through all of this.”

On the court, Westling said she’s getting contributions from all 11 players suited out on this year’s team. Perhaps none have been bigger than those of sophomore sensation Hannah Cooper.

Last year’s Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference (RMAC) Freshman of the Year, from El Paso, Texas, raced out of the gate on fire. She averages more than 20 points a game, is second on the team in rebounding (despite being a 5’7” point guard) and leads the squad in assists and minutes played.

“She’s making a lot of noise this year,” Westling acknowledged. “She’s one of the best players in the RMAC.”

The Mountaineers were picked to finish second in the conference preseason coaches’ poll, behind Mesa. While they have yet to have a showdown with the Mavericks, they did notch a big road win last Friday against the previously undefeated School of Mines.

The veteran squad used a 19-0 run to erase an 8-point deficit in the third quarter, and held on for the big 57-51 win.

“We were tough and we stuck together,” Westling said of the Mines win. “We made plays and shots when we needed to.”

Western also has convincing wins over Fort Lewis and Metro State and started out the season with an 81-74 win over a talented Black Hills State squad that has already notched some RMAC upsets, including one over Mesa.

The road to this year’s RMAC title is a tough one. The competition level throughout the league has improved a lot, according to Westling. Her team won’t be able to take any nights off.

To help keep the team on track, Westling will look to players like Taytem Coleman. The junior from Nebraska is the Mountaineers’ lock down defender, often assigned to slow down the opposing team’s top scorer.

Phylicia Bacon is a redshirt sophomore from Colorado Springs who is playing an increasing role for the Mountaineers. Samantha Coleman recently became the third all time leading 3-point shooter in team history.

The “X factor” on this year’s squad is Emmery Wagstaff. She’s a transfer out of Utah State Eastern who is a perimeter threat often setting up opposite of Samantha Coleman. She’s third on the team in scoring, averaging more than 12 points a game.

The team is currently on an extended break for the holiday and gets back to action on Jan. 5 when they host South Dakota Mines. Spectators are not being allowed in any RMAC gyms this season, but games can be viewed online. Visit GoMountaineers.com for info on viewing details.

Westling said the early season status report on her program can be summed up with a cliche.

“The fun thing about this group is that they really want to get better,” she said. “They want to learn every day. They want to work.

“It’s fun.”

(Chris Dickey can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or publisher@gunnisontimes.corn.)