On March 10, 2015, San Jose State became the first #8 seed in conference history to upset the #1 seed in the Mountain West women’s basketball tournament, after beating Colorado State.
Coming off a 15-17 season and being picked for another eighth-place finish in the Mountain West preseason poll, the Lady Spartans return to action on Sunday, Nov. 1 at 2 p.m., hosting NCAA Division II Sonoma State in a home exhibition at Walt McPherson Court at the Event Center. They follow that with another exhibition on Monday, November 9 at 7 p.m., at the same venue against Division II Holy Names. The regular season opener is on Friday, November 13 at 7 p.m. with the Spartans hosting NAIA Southern Oregon.
Jamie Craighead returns for her third season as head coach. She also brings an experienced group of assistants, with Dan Muscatell back for his second with the team and Jourdan Willard, also Craighead’s top recruiter, in her third. Alle Moreno, a graduate manager last year, has been promoted to full time assistant coach. Muscatell has coached basketball for nearly three decades, including as an assistant coach at Oregon when Craighead played there.
Of 13 players eligible to compete this season, 11 are juniors and seniors. Of those 11, six transferred from other colleges. Returning starters include junior guard Aniya Baker (5’8”), senior center Riana Byrd (6’2”), and senior guard Nyre Harris (5’8”). Other returning letterwinners include junior forward Paris Baird (6’2”), sophomore guard Myzhanique Ladd (5’8”), junior center Emily Schill (6’2”), junior forward Jasmine Smith (6’0”), senior forward Emily Vann (6’0”), and junior guard Rachol West (5’10”). Harris, Smith, and Stevens were voted team captains.
The team has two four-year transfers who redshirted the previous season per NCAA rules, junior guard Dezz Ramos (5’7”) and junior forward Kalie Matthews (6’0”), both from Weber State. Matthews played on the volleyball team last year, as that sport is exempt from the NCAA transfer rule. Another transfer, junior forward Ellie Stevens (6’0”), also redshirted last year despite being eligible to compete as a junior college transfer.
Junior forward Hallie Gennett (5’11”) will redshirt this season after transferring from Sacramento State; Craighead originally recruited her to Sac State before moving to San Jose State in September 2013. Because of this, freshman guard Andrea Kohlhaas is the only newcomer eligible to compete this season.
With the graduations of last season’s leading scorers Ta’rea Cunnigan and Rebecca Woodberry, the remaining players will need to step up and lead the team. Speaking with Inside the Spartans, Craighead predicted that Baker and Ramos could be among the best point guards in the Mountain West and saw “quite the dynamic duo” at forward in Smith and Byrd, adding: “They’ll be able to produce more inside than we’ve ever gotten really from just one of them.” She also added, in an interview with San Jose State play-by-play announcer Justin Allegri, that Matthews “will grab a ton of rebounds.”
Eight members of last year’s team earned Scholar-Athlete honors from the university, and the team also reached a historically high Academic Progress Rate of 966 (out of a maximum 1,000) in 2015.
“We think the better the student is, the better they’re going to be on the court as an athlete. Obviously, basketball is a lot about learning and being able to take instructions, so we think it correlates [with] how you’re able to do in the classroom,” remarked Craighead about her team’s academics.
A challenging out-of-conference schedule
Many of the Spartans’ out-of-conference opponents had winning seasons and postseason tournament appearances in 2014-15. The Spartans’ regular season opener is against Southern Oregon, who is #16 in the NAIA preseason poll after a 27-5 season last year that included a berth in the NAIA Tournament. Then-#13 Southern Oregon also visited The Walt on December 2, 2014 and even had some leads in the first few minutes, but San Jose State ended up winning 110-91. With the final margin being as thin as it was, the result shows that the best of lower-tier teams can challenge mid-level Division I teams.
After the Southern Oregon game, the team heads an hour north to Moraga on Monday, November 15 to face Saint Mary’s. Of ten Division I OOC opponents, eight had winning seasons, postseason tournaments, or both last season, as listed below:
Saint Mary’s (Nov. 15, away): 23-11 (11-5 WCC), WNIT quarterfinals
Cal State Bakersfield (Nov. 22, away): 23-9 (11-3 WAC), WNIT first round
Washington State (Nov. 27, away): 17-15 (7-11 Pac-12), WNIT first round
San Francisco (Dec. 6, home): 19-14 (8-10 WCC), WCC Tournament runners-up, WNIT first round
South Dakota (Dec. 8, home): 26-8 (13-3 Summit), Summit League Tournament runners-up and regular season champions, WNIT second round
Pacific (Dec. 12, away): 21-10 (13-5 WCC), WNIT first round
New Mexico State (Dec. 17, home): 22-8 (13-1 WAC), WAC Tournament and regular season champions, NCAA first round
Hawaii (Dec. 22, home): 23-9 (14-2 Big West), Big West regular season champions, WNIT first round
This makes the OOC schedule a mock WNIT given how many of these teams made that tournament. How the teams performs through these games will be telling of how the team will perform in MWC play.