YAKIMA, Wash. — Central Washington’s basketball teams may be approaching their seasons from different perspectives but both are hoping to end up in the same place — at or near the top.
Central’s women entered this season in a place the program has never been as the Wildcats were the preseason choice to win the always challenging GNAC.
“We definitely knew we could be pretty good … but it gives this group confidence knowing that others believe that way too,” coach Randi Richardson-Thornley said. “We haven’t had that level of respect before … but it doesn’t change how we prepare.”
On the other side, second-year men’s coach Brandon Rinta is working to restore that program to the high level of success it became known for and he believes this team can take a big step in that direction, saying, “I felt pretty good about what we were able to do with a full offseason. We knew we had to get bigger, deeper and more experienced and we were able to do all three this offseason.”
Both teams have experienced early success, with the men starting 5-1 and the women, despite some injuries, standing at 2-2 with two more games before jumping into GNAC play next week.
For the women, the early ups and downs are due to the absence of three returners — forwards Jonnae Richardson and Kassidy Malcolm and guard MJ Lancaster.
“There’s so many unforeseen things you have to deal with,” said Richardson-Thornley, adding that all three are expected back, hopefully in the next few weeks. “We just have to take care of business every single day.”
Finding a silver lining, the coach notes those absences have created valuable playing time for several underclassmen, most notably a pair of sophomores in Zillah graduate Samantha Bowman and Bri Phiakhamngon.
Bowman, a 6-foot-2 forward, is averaging 14.3 points, third-best on the team, and a team-best 9.8 rebounds, while Phiakhamngon is averaging 9.0 points per game.
“It’s great seeing players step up and carry more of the load,” she said. “It will absolutely be paid forward down the road.”
Central has plenty of experience, led by seniors Alexis Pana, a 5-9 guard, Kaelie Flores, a 6-0 forward, and Taylor Shaw, a 5-8 forward.
“One of our strengths is that we’re hard to guard. That will only increase as we get those other players back,” said Richardson-Thornley, adding that the key to any success will come down to defense.
“We have to get better defensively. Play with physicality and toughness,” she said. "Right now, we’re being more reactionary and not proactive and dictating how we want to play.”
Rinta expressed a similar sentiment about the men, saying, “If we want to accomplish anything this year, we have to be better defensively.”
And he’s fully confident this group, with its improved size and depth, is capable of getting there.
“Early this season, our defense has won us some games,” he said. “I hope the guys see that and take pride in that.”
Offensively, Central returns its top three scorers in former Yakima Valley College standout Gamaun Boykin (13.0 ppg), Jeryn Lucas (12.5), both senior guards, and sophomore forward Matt Poquette (9.8).
Other returners are Malcolm Cola, Zellie Hudson and Lewis Pope, although they have been dealing with various injuries.
“Those six are critical in the transition we want to make,” Rinta said, “and they’ve been instrumental in showing the new guys how we want to do things.”
Two important additions to that core are guard Xavier Smith and forward Tariq Woody.
Smith, a 6-4 transfer from Idaho, is Central’s leading scorer, averaging 13.2 points, while shooting 51 percent from the field.
“He’s been great so far,” Rinta said. “He’s good defensively and efficient offensively.”
Woody, a 6-8 sophomore, is averaging 10.0 points and 5.0 rebounds, and will complement Poquette and Cola inside, Rinta said.
“In addition to our depth, we have better size,” Rinta said. “I believe we’re capable of competing with anyone in the conference.”