Air Force women’s basketball hopes winning season spearheads lasting success | Sports
It took more than a quarter century for Air Force women’s basketball to record a winning season after moving to Division I.
The task now: start again.
“I believe we can replicate the physical talent and core personnel of basketball, but we have to replicate all the things that made us good,” coach Chris Gobrecht said.
The Falcons will lose a class of five seniors, including all-time leading scorer Riley Snyder, Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year Cierra Winters and conference leader Haley Jones.
But as these seniors entered a program that had grown from 18 to 161 in the six seasons before their arrival, next year’s squad will have the advantage of stepping in for a program that has grown from 19 to 14 in 2021-22 while setting a slew of firsts for the Falcons program, including winning debut season, playoff trip and playoff victory.
“The bar has been set very high,” said freshman point guard Jo Hunter, one of two starters expected to return for the Air Force along with junior guard Kamri Heath. “I think all of us who come back know that. I think we’re just going to go out this summer and next year and try to match him and try to beat him. … It’s going to be a lot of work.
Hunter finished sixth at Mountain West in attendance-to-gross ratio in a freshman campaign that came out of nowhere after the Falcons signed her without ever seeing her in person. Heath, with a striking midrange jumper that took her to a team-best .430 field goal percentage, has averaged 11.1 points per game in the last 10 games of the season.
Rookie Lauren McDonald (team best by 40.5% from 3-point range), 6-foot junior forwards Nikki McDonald and Dasha MacMillan, and sophomores Taylor Britt and Kayla Pilson, who have flashed potential, but because of various problems, are also willing to return. ‘t had the chance to play regular and extended minutes.
Gobrecht expects extra height with the incoming class, which would be a welcome addition for a regularly undersized squad.
“I think they have all the capabilities to fill the shoes that we leave them,” Jones said of the Falcons’ non-seniors.
But, again, talent really isn’t the issue. Gobrecht’s teams became increasingly skilled over his seven years. What sets this one apart are the intangibles like leadership, resilience, the ability to take on specific roles and, most obviously, the will to defend.
The Falcons were the best in the Mountain West in defense, steals, forced turnovers and turnover margin.
This is what makes Gobrecht most optimistic.
“Now the culture is established that if we do this, we win,” she said. “Throughout my career the hardest step has been getting teams to buy into that pressure defense because it’s so much work. You really have to believe that it’s going to make a difference for you to come out and do it every time.
Snyder explained that she chose the Air Force as a vaunted recruit for the opportunity to be part of building a program. Part of that is doing what the Falcons just did by setting a new standard for a program. The rest leaves behind a culture that makes this success repeatable.
“I think they saw what it took to bring the Air Force to a winning season and so we left that behind,” Snyder said. “I’m excited to see what they can do.”