The landscape of athletics has changed around the world in the past year, but the drive and hunger for the UTRGV Vaqueros women’s basketball team remains the same heading into the 2020-21 season.
“This is the greatest game in the world. We are very fortunate,” UTRGV head coach Lane Lord said. “It’s a blessing for us to even be able to play this game, and we finally get to do it after nine months. I think there will be a lot of hunger out there, a lot of desire to play because this year has been like no other. We have to feel blessed right now and that’s been our message.”
The Vaqueros will lean on its seniors on and off the court, starting with the Preseason All-WAC First Team selection Amara Graham.
Graham realizes the importance of her leadership and is looking to take her leadership role to another level this season.
“Last year I didn’t do as good of a job of being a leader as I wanted to,” Graham said. “This year, coming in and knowing it’s my senior season — we have freshmen and transfers — I think it was kind of my job to be a better leader this year. I am trying to take my leadership to another level this year.”
UTRGV will rely on the leadership of Valeria Tapia and Iva Belosevic this season.
The Vaqueros welcomed in six freshmen last season with four of them playing quality minutes, especially towards the end of the season. Those quality minutes for the likes of Halie Jones, Tiffany McGarity, Sara Bershers, and Sydney Cajero will help them take that next step in 2020-21.
Having a good mixture of leadership and experience will be key in UTRGV realizing its goal of a championship this season.
“You can’t win championships in any league without experience and you have to have leadership,” Lord said. “With Amara being here for five years, she has been through this grind many times and has done a great job leading us. Valeria has been doing a great job of leading as well. We had six freshmen and four of them got to play a lot. I think that experience they had will help us with our depth and taking the program to the next level. You have to have experience. You have to have consistency in your program and with the returners coming back we will rely on them heavily.”
Jones played in all 30 games last year and showed potential when she dropped 20 points against Texas Lutheran. Bershers battled through injuries but played more than 15 minutes per game in six of the last seven games, while Cajero played most of her minutes in WAC play last season.
The Vaqueros will also welcome Burcu Soysal, who redshirted last season due to NCAA transfer rules. Soysal brings her fair share of experience after playing all 32 games at UMass as a freshman.
Soysal’s addition adds more size in the post and will help provide different wrinkles on both ends of the court. The additional size on the court brings some excitement for the staff.
“Our first year we played with Madison Northcutt, she was 5-11,” Lord said. “Last year we played with Desirea Buerge and she was 6 foot. Now we have 6-foot-5 Burcu. She started every game as a freshman at UMass and she is getting better and better. Just having that rim protector allows us to really get out and pressure. We play a style defensively that is different from most people in the half court. Sydney has made a big jump from year one to this year. She is more confident player. When you add in Brianna Sanchez, we are three deep there.”
Sanchez is one of five newcomers for the Vaqueros this season along with Arianna Sturdivant, Jordan Lewis, Jessica Martino, and Jena’ Williams. All five will help strengthen the depth of the Vaqueros and look to make an impact in 2020-21.
Williams played last year at Nevada and could see a lot of action at the point guard spot. That could allow Graham, who led the WAC in 3-point shooting percentage last year, to shoot the ball more this season.
Lewis and Martino continue to make strides in the offense each day and could be key contributors once they settle into the offense.
Sanchez and Sturdivant are making a case for playing time. Sanchez adds depth in the post and will continue to learn and grow each day, while Sturdivant may turn some heads with her shooting from three-point range.
“The new players coming into the system are trusting in the coaches,” Graham said. “The first year I had with Coach Lord, it was a whole new coaching staff and to be successful we had to trust in the coaches. In that first year, we were a point away from the NCAA Tournament. I know the new players are trusting in them and have seen the results from the last couple of years. They have bought in and hopefully we can get that WAC Tournament this year.”
The Vaqueros face power-five schools Texas Tech and Kansas on the road in non-conference this season.
UTRGV will open its season at 1 p.m. Wednesday on the road against Texas Tech.
UTRGV will also get to play at Bert Ogden Arena against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi as part of the South Texas Showdown before hosting North Texas, UT Arlington and Prairie View A&M for the inaugural South Padre Island Classic and hosting Incarnate Word at the UTRGV Fieldhouse to close out non-conference play.
The Vaqueros then kick off WAC play with a different twist this season, when teams play back-to-back games against the same team, at the same site, during the same weekend.
The WAC will remain competitive this season having added Dixie State and Tarleton State into the mix.
The Vaqueros were picked to finish third in the WAC Media Poll and fifth in the Coaches Poll.
“The preseason predictions and all that stuff is for the fans,” Lord said. “This year will be so much different. It will be about who stays healthy and who gels together. Things could change each week. It will be a crazy year. The ones that stick together and follow the protocols and stay safe are the teams that are going to come out on top.”