VERMILLION, S.D. | The first season of the Amy Williams era got off to a rocky start before it even began.
Five players had already suffered season-ending injuries during the summer, leaving the new University of South Dakota women’s basketball coach with just 10 healthy bodies.
Summit League coaches must have paid attention, picking the Coyotes sixth in their preseason poll.
All the “band of 10” did was finish third in the regular season standings and push league champion South Dakota State to the limit before falling 56-53 in the Summit League tournament championship.
In a roller-coaster season, South Dakota won seven of its last nine games to finish 19-16 and reach a WBI semifinal, where it lost to McNeese State, 71-63, Thursday night at the DakotaDome.
“One thing myself and Tempestt (Wilson) kind of hung our hats on was being tough and resilient and never being afraid to go into any game,” said guard Alexis Yackley, who along with fellow senior Wilson started all 35 games. “That’s kind of what we tried to exude in practice and on the court in games to everybody.
“I may not be the tallest, strongest, fastest or most athletic, but I can always play the hardest. I think our team kind of exuded that.”
The Coyotes, in their first full season of Division I eligibility, started 1-4, but went 18-12 the rest of the way and gave the seniors a final bow at the DakotaDome.
“We had several times this season where I felt our kids could have checked it in, packed it in or decided it wasn’t worth it,” said Williams, who took over at USD after five seasons at Rogers State (Okla.). “That’s a credit to the group of seniors we have here. They are a hard-working, gritty group of young women who brought energy and work ethic to every single workout every single day.”
Yackley, who began her collegiate career at Iowa State, wound up fourth on the school’s all-time assist chart, recording 187 this season.
Wilson, who started 82 straight games, finished second on the team in scoring at 12.9 points per game and second in three-pointers with 41.
Sam Mehr and Pam January – who played in her 100th game as a Coyote – also wrapped up their careers against McNeese State.
“You can’t even measure where the seniors have left this program,” said Williams. “They have completely poured their heart and soul into what it means to be Coyote women’s basketball. We try to tell our underclassmen about how appreciative they should be to this group of seniors for what they’ve gone through to pave the way for our program.”
Yes, the future is indeed bright.
Nicole Seekamp, a 5-foot-10 redshirt sophomore, developed into USD’s go-to player, averaging a team-high 14.9 points. She scored 20 or more points eight times, pouring in a career-high 33 against Utah State in the first round of the WBI.
Polly Harrington, a 5-11 junior, started all 35 games, averaging 11.1 points and 5.8 rebounds while charting double digits in 22 games.
Sophomore Lisa Loeffler (6-1), worked her way into the starting lineup midway through the season while freshmen Margaret McCloud, Heidi Hoff and Tia Hemiller each saw extensive action.
The five injured players – Junior McKayla Knudson from South Sioux City, sophomores Kelly Stewart and Taylor Moore and freshmen Taneesha Greaves and Bailey Milne – each took redshirt seasons.
“I hope the first thing that happens is the expectations are raised,” said Williams in discussing the future. “I was very fortunate to walk into some great players and a team that had experienced some postseason success in the WNIT. We made that our goal and I would like our program to continue to work to raise the bar.”
Williams, a former University of Nebraska guard and assistant coach at Oklahoma State and Tulsa, admitted there were more ups and downs than she expected.
“I felt like we were on a bit of a roller-coaster, especially early in the year,” she said. “The ultimate goal was to be playing great and even things out at the end. I think this team and my staff and this program surpassed my expectations in year one as far as being able to accomplish that goal to the level we did.”
The Coyotes let a 12-point second-half lead slip away against McNeese State, but Yackley wouldn’t trade her final collegiate season for anything.
“We had 10 people and played in five postseason games,” said Yackley. “A lot of the freshmen got a lot of playing time because they had to in certain cases. I think that can only help for the future.
“Obviously, we were super disappointed we lost the game against State because we led the whole way. We would have liked to win (and get to the NCAA tournament) but we’re excited we got to extend our careers for a little longer, win two road games and then get one last chance to play in front of Coyote fans and our parents. Fortunately, it didn’t go our way, but we had a great run.”