Eastern Shore to open season with Valley Forge, Friday
PRINCESS ANNE, Maryland -
When the University of Maryland Eastern Shore women’s basketball squad lost point guard Ciani Byrom (Winston-Salem, North Carolina) 12 games into the 2016-17 season and backcourt mate Keyera Eaton (Winston-Salem, North Carolina) seven games later, head coach Fred Batchelor was forced to turn to an inexperienced bench.
The Shore saw nine different players average double-digit minutes and no player on the team played less than 5.9 minutes per contest as they finished the season 13-6 overall, winning an opening round game in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Tournament before falling to Hampton in the second round.
Batchelor will still be without his two junior guards on Friday (Nov. 10) when the Hawks open this season at home against Valley Forge at 6 p.m. Byrom has yet to return form the knee injury she suffered last season and Eaton suffered an arm injury early this year.
“I’m hoping that they are both back on the floor by the time we return from the Great Alaskan Shootout (Nov. 21-23),” Batchelor said. “That’s the current timetable.”
But, this time around, the veteran coach thinks the Hawks have the depth to handle the bumps until the duo returns to the lineup.
An influx of two graduate transfers and a junior college standout join eight returning players and four freshmen to give the Hawks a completely new look this season.
Senior guard Alexus Hicks (Raleigh, North Carolina), who started at the point guard during Byrom’s absence a year ago, is no stranger to the pressures of running the team and she’ll start this season in familiar territory.
“It’s great to have a four-year kid,” Batchelor said. “We lost Shauntesha (Bryant), so that makes Hicks that much more valuable to me — a four-year kid in the program who is a guard, a leader and a team captain this year.
“I’m excited to have her back and I think she is going to be our glue person. She is going to fill the spots we need her to fill all year long. Hopefully once CiCi gets back she’ll be able to share the point and play some two-guard. I don’t know that we’d realize how valuable she is to us unless we didn’t have her.”
Senior Tori Morris (Herndon, Virginia) — a one-time transfer herself from Grand Canyon — played in all 29 contests a year ago after sitting out the 2015-16 season. She averaged 5.2 rebounds and 5.5 points while leading the team in blocked shots.
“I’m expecting big things from Tori,” Batchelor said. “It’s a huge adjustment for a kid to sit out a year and then come back and play in a whole new system. I think Tori is probably playing some of the best basketball I have seen her play in the early part of the year and I think she is going to surprise some people and have a very productive senior year.”
Junior Ra'Jean Martin (Jacksonville, Florida) was a part of the recruiting class that brought in Byrom and Eaton, but she is ready to make big contributions in her own right.
“Ra’Jean even in the absence of the other two is the foundation of the program right now,” Batchelor said. “After being here two years and going into their third year I really appreciate having them and you are able to make them the foundation because you know you have them next year.”
She averaged 19 minutes a game last season and started 10 games for Eastern Shore.
“Ra’Jean brings a lot of energy, focus and determination on the floor,” Batchelor said. “She may get overlooked a bit as well, but brings it every day. She is a kid who works her butt off every single day.”
They combined for 22 minutes a game as freshmen and spending that time on the court could help further the learning curve this season.
“They may not be your first kids,” Batchelor said. “They may not be in the first seven, but they are critical to your program because — if something happens to one of those seven — their experience will allow them to step in without a huge letdown. All three of them are very valuable to the program because they give us insurance and stability.”
Nkpuechina should see minutes behind Morris in the post because of her size (6-foot-2), while Popovich and Godwin will be looking to capitalize on their opportunities during the early season to plant a seed for later.
JUCO transfer Dominique Walker (Bel Air, Maryland) 13.2 points and 8.8 rebounds last season at Harford Community College and is adjusting to the Division I level, while the two other transfers arrive with plenty of experience at this level and could be invaluable during the nonconference schedule.
Guard Martha Thompson (Bedford Heights, Ohio) came to the Hawks for a fifth year after graduating from Xavier, while Jordyn Smith (Durham, North Carolina) came to The Shore by way of graduation from Towson. Each suffered their own injuries and redshirted the 2013-14 seasons allowing them to be what could shape up to be key parts of this Hawks squad.
It remains to be seen how the Hawks perform in the early going with so many new pieces, while missing two important ones. After facing his alma mater at home, Batchelor will take his women on the road to Buffalo and Syracuse before making a northern trek.
Valley Forge is a National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA) Division II opponent in its fourth year of provisional membership in NCAA Division III and competes in the American Collegiate Athletic Association (ACAA). The Patriots finished the 2016-17 regular season with an 18-4 record including a 14-game winning streak.
Friday’s game will be broadcast online at easternshorehawks.com with pregame coverage starting at 5:45 p.m. Will DeBoer returns for his second season as the Voice of the Hawks; he will be joined by David Byrd for the call on The Shore Sports Network from SFMSports.net.
For more information on Eastern Shore Athletics visit http://www.easternshorehawks.com/.
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