When Candi Whitaker accepted the job as Missouri Western women’s basketball on April 16, she knew she was inheriting one of the top prizes in Division II.
As a junior, Katrina Roenfeldt led the MIAA with 86 made 3-pointers while finishing second in the conference in steals and third in points. Just a 5-foot-6 guard from Dodge City, Kansas, she also led her team in rebounding.
“She does, but she’s always telling us to chill out about it,” senior guard Anastacia Johnson said when asked if her teammate knows of her own talents.
“It’s OK to be like, ‘All right, yeah, I know,’” she added with a smirk, standing next to Roenfeldt.
She is now tasked with leading an inexperienced group of Griffons that includes eight newcomers, transfer-heavy and hopeful of winning in bunches quickly.
“I want a ring. I want a ring really bad,” Roenfeldt said. “I’ve never gotten one. I’ve never won a championship, and I think this team can do it this year.”
After winning 21 games during the 2016-17 season, the Griffons combined for just 27 wins the past two seasons with a 12-26 conference record in that span. Much of that came with injuries to starters, as was the case with Roenfeldt’s hand two years ago.
She bounced back in a big way, scoring in double figures in 26 of the team’s 30 games on the way to the MIAA Tournament quarterfinals.
She averaged 16.2 points per game with 10 20-point games and three double-doubles. With the likes of Melia Richardson gone to graduation, Roenfeldt now must take on the task as the team’s go-to leader.
“We set a good tone, go hard, and they follow in our footsteps,” Roenfeldt said. “We’re all one unit now.”
Johnson returns as the second most experienced player and one of the tone-setters on defense, though she showed offensive flashes in transition a year ago.
“I’m really confident about this year. It comes from my teammates,” Johnson said. “I’m taking that and doing that every day in practice and making sure I contribute my confidence to someone else to boost their confidence.”
Former Benton standout Kylee Williams is back after contributing as a junior and earned a start in the team’s exhibition at Iowa State, and senior Simone Walker returns after starting six of the team’s final 11 games last year.
While the returners all have offensive skill-sets, Western’s trademark will come on the defensive end, as shown by forcing 20 turnovers against the Cyclones.
“I do think our team takes a lot of pride in defense and guarding and pressuring the basketball, playing good team defense,” Whitaker said. “It makes it easy for me that that’s something they wanna do and take a lot of pride in.”
Alongside Roenfeldt, Johnson and Williams, senior transfer Chris Wilson started with freshman Logan Hughes against Iowa State. Wilson fell into early foul trouble against the Cyclones’ size but was one of the top players in the Peach Belt Conference last year at Flagler College. She started 26 games, averaging 13 points and just shy of nine rebounds with a team-high 70 steals.
“She’s crazy athletic, is always talking and is loud. You feel her presence no matter what,” Johnson said.
Wilson added, “I bring a little energy, just some of everything. I bring rebounding, scoring, and playing hard on defense.”
Hughes, a freshman from Shenandoah, Iowa, led Western with 17 points on five made 3-pointers in exhibition play.
Mychaell Gray, Corbyn Cunningham, Simone Rodney, Miranda Stephens and Kyra Hogan also saw double-digit minutes in the team’s exhibition.
With the season here with the Hillyard Tip-Off Classic, Western’s returners know it’s on them to lead the way if they’re to return to Kansas City for the MIAA Tournament, or even further.
“We’re leading by example,” Johnson said. “We know what it takes to play in this league, so we’re trying to keep play at that level and show our incoming players what it actually takes.”