The most surprising thing about the Vikings’ Sunday night exhibition opener against the P&P Lady Express was not how close they came to defeating P&P’s veteran squad of former pro players and college stand-outs.
It was not the hefty 70 points they put up in a 77-70 loss (they only broke 70 points 8 times last year) that was closer than the final score would seem to indicate. The moment that defined the character of this mostly new, very young team came well after the final buzzer sounded, after the handshake line with the opposing team.
It came even after the emotional meeting at center court where head coach Charity Elliot rallied her troops after the disappointing loss. The display was truly a rarity almost never seen in modern sport; one by one, Viking players waded, sweaty and exhausted, into the small crowd of spectators that showed up for the game and…thanked them.
It wasn’t forced and their words were not trite. It was simply a show of genuine appreciation for the 187 individuals that had taken time out of their lives to support a program that went 6-22 last season, a program that is desperately seeking a return to respectability.
With the team averaging only 300 fans per game last season, this is the type of outreach that head coach Charity Elliot hopes will build solid team-fan relations, something as sorely missed from last season as wins. “I hope the fans realize how much we appreciate them,” said Elliot. Post-game handshakes with fans are nice and certainly a good starting point, something Elliot and the team have no intention of stopping.
Another thing fans love and appreciate even more is wins. Despite the tough loss, several aspects of Sunday’s game bode well for the rest of this infantile season. Freshman standout Delaney Conway, a 6-foot forward who redshirted last season, scored a team high 19 points on 7-10 shooting from the floor. Conway, billed as a pure shooter, displayed the ability to hit difficult shots with hands in her face and also to knock down the open jumpers.
At times she carried the Viking offense by herself, impressing her coach. “She’s going to have a surprising year,” Elliot said in reference to the player who will jump center for the Viks this season. Her continued scoring and interior toughness will be vital if the team is to find success down the road.
Though Conway possesses a sweet jumper and obvious innate talent, she won’t be asked to go it alone. Elliot is excited about several other players that she expects to step up and play key roles, both as starters and off the bench
Stuart is now fully recovered from the ACL tear that nixed the last three games of her junior season, though she did experience a brief in-game scare Sunday night. Luckily for the Vikings, she’s fine. If they are to succeed this year, her ability to score, rebound, pass, play defense and most importantly to lead will be absolutely vital. Elliot expects her to have an “excellent year.”
Due to the inexperience of the Viking post corps, Coach Elliot is inclined to start a three guard/two forward set. This means that the 5-10 Arns will routinely be asked to match up with larger, stronger opposing forwards in what she describes as a “progressing year” for the team.
“Our system is better (this year),” Arns said, and she is clearly at ease with her role as both team jokester and starting forward.
Her slashing style, a nice compliment to the many shooters on the team, should in theory help wear out defenses. A scrappy energy player, Arns should be able to compete on D and find a way to grab her share of boards as well.
Two players will share point guard duties this year. Ashley Brown, the incumbent, and Sharon Wahinekapu are both expected to play significant minutes. The burden of running Coach Elliot’s new motion offense falls on them, and during Sunday’s game both players showed flashes of brilliance when the offense was clicking and also some forgivable and expected moments of confusion, only natural as the team works out early season kinks. “They’re all really trying to do what we want,” Elliot said.
Rounding out those to watch are a talented pair who has flown under the radar thus far. JJ Magee will start at guard, earning the spot with what Coach Elliot calls “extremely consistent” play in practice. Magee provides some decent shooting from range and the ability to finish strong inside. Factor in her defense and hustle and she should keep the starting job. Adding size off the bench is Marci Garski, a 6-2 true freshman center who did well in her debut, scoring 6 points and 6 rebounds in 16 minutes. “Marci tries to do everything right,” her coach said. Look for Garski to continue to create an impact as a reserve with her tenacious post play, though her inexperience could be a factor in pressure situations.
Though the Vikings have plenty to look forward to, they were sloppy for much of Sunday’s game and completely broke down at the end. Defensively, the Viks were hurt as they got into foul trouble early and often.
The defense is built around ball control, and the point guards simply need to move their feet more and stay in front of their man. Failing to do so resulted in easy penetration for the opposing team and gimme shots at the rim, and will continue to hurt them as they lack a real shot blocker in the middle.
At times the Vikings were able to ramp up the defensive pressure in transition and scored some easy buckets because of it. However, many times they fell asleep until it was too late and there was nothing left to do except grab at passing jerseys. Smartly, transition defense is one area Elliot plans on working on in the next few weeks.
All is not lost, however. The Vikings have two weeks to get ready for their Nov. 21 season opener against the University of Portland at the Chiles Center. “I want our team to be blue collar. We need every loose ball,” Coach Elliot said.
Fans get to see the hustle up close when the Vikings return to the Stott Center for a Nov. 27 rematch with the Pilots – and perhaps a chance to return some thanks of their own to this team for earning a long-awaited win.