By BEN JOHNSON
Little known fact about Northeastern State women’s basketball: since coach Randy Gipson arrived, the program has not endured a losing season.
Since 1999-2000, NSU has only known success under Gipson’s guidance. In fact, since the 2002-2003 season, NSU has made the NCAA tournament seven of the last 10 years.
That includes last year’s club.
The RiverHawks last season churned out a 25-5 mark and made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament, before suffering a 68-54 setback to Pittsburg State.
Now, NSU, ranked 23rd in a national preseason poll in Division II, dives headlong into the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association, where games against Pittsburg State and perennial powers, Washburn and Emporia State, are the norm.
“We’ve always been a part of this region, and the Lone Star Conference was a good league, too,” Gipson said on the eve of his 14th season at NSU. “The MIAA, a lot of people say, is the top Division II women’s basketball league in the country. I don’t think any of that matters, though. When it comes down to it, we’re going to go play one game at a time.”
That process will begin Friday when the RiverHawks take on Lubbock Christian in a neutral-site game at Southwestern Oklahoma State in Weatherford. A game against Oklahoma City University will follow on Saturday, also at SWOSU.
“Our opening weekend has the No. 1-ranked team in NAIA right now in Lubbock Christian,” Gipson said. “Then, our second game is against Oklahoma City University, which is the defending national champion of NAIA.”
From there, it doesn’t get any easier for NSU. The RiverHawks will spend most of November and December away from home with only two games at Jack Dobbins Field House.
“I don’t think there’s any question,” Gipson said, “we’re playing a schedule that should get us ready for any league.”
Speaking of the MIAA, NSU was picked to finish fourth in the league in two preseason polls from coaches and media members. The RiverHawks were picked to finish behind Washburn, Pittsburg State and Emporia State (in that order) with Fort Hays State, Central Missouri, Truman and Central Oklahoma not far behind.
During NSU’s one-year run as an independent last season, the RiverHawks went 8-5 against MIAA clubs. Against, Pitt State and Emporia State, NSU went 1-4.
NSU will also venture into the MIAA without the likes of Cristy Nitz, Jasmine Wright, Megan Fraley and Kendra Kok. Nitz, Wright and Fraley played critical minutes for the RiverHawks and combined for 26.6 points per game last season, while Kok was a key reserve who battled injuries and only played in 15 games.
“We lost some important players,” Gipson said. “And we have some people that were back-up players that have to step up and be productive for us.”
Translation: players such as Katy Harsen, Carrington Fox, Chelsey Stricklen, Taylor Collins and Fontana Tate — all contributors off the bench last season — must make up for the lost productivity.
“Their roles need to be elevated this year,” Gipson said. Carrington will be one of our starting forwards, and she needs to be a consistent player.”
Fox, a 5-foot-11 junior forward from Union High School, averaged 3.3 points and 2.5 rebounds in 14.2 minutes per game last season.
Along side Fox in the starting rotation will almost certainly be Taylor Lewis, Tosha Tyler and Sarah Green — NSU’s three seniors this season. Lewis led the RiverHawks in scoring last season at 12.2 points per game, while Tyler and Green (who had six rebounds a game) weren’t far behind at 8.4 and 8.0 points per game.
“Those two ought to be amongst two of the best guards of anybody we play,” Gipson said of Lewis and Tyler. “We’re going to lean on them heavily to give us good play, and they’re going to need to be good players on both ends of the floor.”
Added into the mix this season will be newcomers, Kate Bellamy, Courtney Cowan, Melissa Jones, Lexie Lewis and Laura Reel. Of the group, only Reel won’t be a freshman; the 6-foot forward from Wagoner will be a sophomore after transferring from Arkansas State University.
“Laura Reel is the biggest kid in our program,” Gipson said. “She’s got true post-player size, and I think she can physically match up with some of the big posts that we’ve gone against the last couple of years.
“We have to work her into the mix and she’s working hard to do that. But she’s still learning our system.”
Bellamy is a 5-foot-9 guard from Cambewarra, Australia, making her the second Australian on NSU’s team in four years (Sarah Millar, who graduated in 2010, was the other). Jones (a 5-10 forward) and Lewis (a 6-1 forward who recently had season-ending ankle surgery) are both from Farmington, Ark., and Cowan (5-6 guard) joins the RiverHawks after leading the Kansas Comets to the Class 3A state tournament last season.