Baker returns all five starters from a squad that went 18-14 overall and 13-7 in the Heart of America Athletic Conference, before falling in the HAAC semifinals to William Jewell College.
Senior leadership will be in abundance for this year’s squad as all five starters are in their final year. The starting lineup includes 5-foot-10-inch point guard Jenna Brantley (Lawrence, Kan.), 5’6” guard Brittany Hines (Hutchinson, Kan.), 5’9” guard Audrey Bryant (Parkville, Mo.), 6’0 forward Aubree Gustin (Topeka, Kan.) and 6’1” post Emily Gibson (Kansas City, Mo.). Gibson, an NAIA honorable mention All-American last season, averaged 14.8 points and 10.1 rebounds per game. Gustin and Hines each averaged 9.5 points per game as juniors. Brantley tied the Baker all-time assist record (10) twice last season against Friends University and Evangel University.
“I think our expectations are really high,” said head coach Susan Decker. “Having this many returners on our team will really help us in pushing toward our end goal of winning the conference.”
Junior Christy Nelson, a transfer from Cloud County Community College, was expected to play a key role but was injured early in the season and will sit out her junior campaign.
Four newcomers to the program are freshmen Rachel Taghaboni (Chino Hills, Calif.), April Cadua (National City, Calif.), Ashley Werner (Pittsburg, Kan.) and Haley Epperson (Eudora, Kan.). With these additions, coach Decker is hoping for added depth at the guard and forward positions.
Bench depth will also be critical as the Wildcats strive to advance to their first HAAC title since 1982-83. Decker expects juniors Gloria Atanmo (Avondale, Ariz.) and Brooke Sanders (Shawnee, Kan.) to contribute key minutes for the ’Cats.
A new era set to begin for Baker men’s basketball
Only one other coach in Baker University history can list the storied University of Kansas on his coaching resumé. His name was Phog Allen.
This connection is not lost on new Wildcat coach Brett Ballard, who is well aware of what it takes to be a winner. During his time on the coaching staff at KU, the Jayhawks won the 2008 national championship, advanced to three NCAA Tournament Elite Eights, won the past six Big 12 regular season championships and claimed four postseason tournaments.
“I am very excited and humbled to take over the basketball program at Baker University. It is a great opportunity, and the support I have already received has been tremendous,” Ballard said.
The Wildcats return five seniors, including three starters from the 2009-2010 squad. Leading the veterans will be 6-foot-1-inch swingman Jaris Wommack (Talorville, Ill.) and 6’4” forward Andre Strozier (Phoenix, Ariz.). Strozier averaged 13.1 points and 8.1 rebounds per game last season. Wommack averaged 9.6 points as a junior.
Several new players will fill major roles for the ’Cats. Six-foot nine-inch Samer Jassar (Barton CC) and Curvonte McGown (Scottsdale CC) will add depth to the forward and guard positions.
“We have a solid group of seniors that are very hungry to have a successful year,” Ballard said. “We also have some newcomers and underclassmen that are ready to contribute. These guys have worked very hard in the offseason, and I have been pleased with the progress we have made.”
After finishing last season 10-17 overall and 3-17 in the Heart of America Athletic Conference, Ballard is well aware of the challenges that loom ahead.
“This is one of the best NAIA conferences in the country. We look forward to the challenge we know that we will face night in and night out. We understand there are some tremendous players and coaches in this league, and we are very excited about the opportunity to compete against them.”
The Wildcats open up the 2010-11 campaign at 7 p.m. Nov. 4 when they host Kansas Wesleyan.