BY RAEGAN NEUFELD
PHOTO BY JESS KIRCHHOFF
The Fort Hays women’s basketball team is off to a great start this season. The Tigers have been building on their success from last season’s 20-2 campaign, ending in a conference championship. They started this year by being ranked first in both the MIAA and media preseason polls. After playing 15 games, the team is now 14-1 overall on the year.
In the preseason, head coach Tony Hobson emphasized the importance of not taking last year’s success for granted, due to the toughness of the MIAA conference. He now says that was an accurate statement to make.
“It’s tough again this year. There’s always going to be about a four or five team race,” he said. “We’ve played a very tough non-conference schedule, so we’ve had some comparative games, but the toughest games we have every year are within our conference.”
In fact, the Tigers’ only loss this season is from their game against Nebraska-Kearney. The Tigers took a half-game lead in the MIAA after their win over Northwest Missouri State on Wednesday, giving Fort Hays the better win percentage and the top spot in the MIAA standings. They have also spent most of the year in the top five of both the coaches and media polls for Division II basketball
Two clear improvements from the beginning of the season to now are the team’s overall health and defense. The Tigers started the season with a couple of players out after surgery at the end of last year. Then, Jaden Hobbs missed several games due to an ankle injury.
“We’ve only had two games this year out of 14 where we’ve had everybody suited up,” Hobson said. “So it’s just kind of nice to have a full complement of players and try to start getting things worked out.”
As for defense, Hobson said, “We’re playing better and getting used to each other. It’s been more stingy than it was before Christmas.”
He also noted their depth as a reason for the larger margins of victory recently. Throughout the first five games, the Tigers’ largest margin of victory was 16 points. In the games played from December 19th to January 8th, Fort Hays beat their opponent by an average of 36.6 points.
“Our last five games have been pretty wide margins. Part of that is who we’re playing, but also part of that is we’ve got everybody back healthy, so our depth is much better,” Hobson said. “When somebody’s showing a little fatigue we just sub. Earlier in the year when we were winning a lot of five, six point games, we were playing sometimes just seven players, with most of them playing a lot of minutes. It’s hard to pull away from people without good depth, so I think that’s the primary difference.”
Out of the typical starting lineup, Katie Wagner, Olivia Hollenbeck, Whitney Randall, and Jaden Hobbs are all averaging double figures. Lauren West is practically there, with 9.9 points per game. Wagner has also been a dominant rebounder, leading the team for the first seven games, and four of the last seven games. She averages nine boards per game, for a total of 126 on the season.
Seniors Hobbs and Randall have been the leaders Hobson expected them to be, and not just in the scorebook. Before the season, he said that he hoped they would get us going early in the year and bring the others along.
“I think they’ve done an excellent job,” Hobson said. “I think the thing they do best is they make the new kids feel welcome and make everybody comfortable. They’re very supportive, and that’s what leaders are. Leaders figure out a way to get the most out of their teammates and themselves. Part of it is making sure everybody’s part of the group and they’ve done a good job of being inclusive. When people are like that they play much better.”
Hobson also mentioned the atmosphere of the home games in Gross-Memorial Coliseum, and how the fans bring excitement to the games.
“There were so many questions last year, that most people didn’t want to mess with it. It’s been much better this year and we’ve had some excellent crowds. It just makes the home experience much more enjoyable and I think we play better because of it.”
Average attendance has risen back up to 1726 this season after nine home games, compared to 789 over 14 games last year. Fans will have the chance to see the Tigers in action at home five more times before the season is over.
As for the second half of the season, Hobson said his team is focused on staying in the moment and controlling what they can control.
“The main thing you have to do this time of year is not get ahead of yourself and not project down the road what might or might not happen. All I know is that we know we can control ourselves and our team,” he said. “We don’t have any control over a lot of things, including other teams, officials, COVID, or whatever. So we just have to concentrate on doing the best we can with ourselves, and getting ready to play and preparing for each game.”