VERMILLION, S.D. | Nicole Seekamp likes this team more than most any basketball squad she has been a part of.
That will be key for the All-Summit League first-team pick as she and the rest of the University of South Dakota women’s basketball team try to incorporate 11 freshmen and sophomores into the squad this season.
“I have admitted it to a few people that this is one of the best teams I have been part of,” said Seekamp during the team's media day Wednesday. “I don’t know why to tell you the honest truth but we just all get along so well.”
It has been an important preseason for USD Coach Amy Williams as she tries to mold the group in the image she wants as she enters her second season at the helm.
“She has been a lot more aggressive because of the newcomers and she just wants them to get it and go hard,” said Polly Harrington, USD’s lone senior on the roster. “She just wants them to see how hard you have to play at the collegiate level.”
Williams has leaned on Harrington, a second-team preseason all-conference pick, to help guide the young team early on.
“She is the lone senior of our group, kind of the grandma,” Williams said with laugh. “She is coming in with the consistent attitude and embraced the leadership role as a senior. … To have a senior that walks away from practice and wants to take the time to spend with freshmen and sophomores.
“Polly has really been invested in those young kids and trying to teach them the culture we are trying to instill here.”
Seekamp, Harrington and junior forward Lisa Loeffler are the lone returning upperclassmen from a team that went 19-16 overall in Williams’ first season a year ago and made it to the conference tournament finals before falling to South Dakota State. The Coyotes closed out their season in the WBI Tournament.
Seekamp is coming off a season in which she averaged just under 15 points a game and four rebounds before exploding in the postseason with averages of 20.7 and 5.3. The native Australian, who Williams said has the highest basketball IQ of any player she has ever coached, improved her game over the summer playing on a select team in Australia.
“It let me go home and work on some things … I worked on my ballhanding a bit more, getting stronger and being able to finish with contact because I found I struggled with that last year,” she said. “Even just my maturity in general because this year I have to be more of a leader.”
Her strong finish to last season has her ready to go this season.
“I know that I can do it and I have done it so now it’s just that one step farther and doing it more consistently,” Seekamp said.
Loeffler impressed Williams with her offseason work by improving her strength and conditioning while also improving her outside shot.
Sophomore guard Tia Hemiller has emerged as a likely replacement for Alexis Yackley at the point guard position, sophomore guard Heidi Hoff will likely see more time with an improved commitment on the defensive end of the floor and sophomore center Margaret McCloud is in line to give the Coyotes a strong post presence along with Harrington and Loeffler.
“They all had tremendous offseasons,” Williams said. “There were certain days with Tia where I was just thinking this is not the same kid. She has improved her game, her consistency, she is explosive and she is a great athlete.”
The Coyotes, who were picked third in the conference preseason poll, will have to lean on several freshmen and players coming back from injury to provide depth for the team, but freshman Bridget Arens has caught her coach’s eye early. The Crofton, Neb., product led the team to a state titles in 2012 and 2013 and was a three-time all-stater.
Injuries were a major story for the Coyotes a season ago and they may have already made an impact this season. Junior college transfer Raeshel Contreras led the Coyotes in scoring in a recent scrimmage, but she is now dealing with a knee injury of unknown severity.
“She is very good and explosive when we can advance to ball to her and she is a great scoring threat,” Williams said. “We are hoping that we can get her with the doctor and it will not be a serious knee issue but we will find that out in the next few days.”
USD has a tough schedule staring at it this winter with six of the team’s first seven games coming on the road and more non-conference games (15) on the schedule than conference tilts (14).