The words affixed to the Air Force women’s basketball in recent years carried a laborious ring. There was talk of laying a foundation. Building, always building, and searching for improvement even when a scoreboard didn’t reflect it.
On the — fingers crossed — eve of the season opener at 5 p.m. Wednesday against Denver, a new word was used. Repeatedly.
“It’s fun because the games and scrimmages are more competitive,” coach Chris Gobrecht said. “It’s just made it more fun for everybody.”
This final step in what could be a coming-of-age season is largely a product of the team’s depth. Consider this long downtrodden program is loaded with 6-foot-2 senior center Kassady Huffman, among the most prolific shot blockers in team history. And with Haley Jones, who finished in the top 15 in the Mountain West last year in offensive rebounds and steals. And with Kamri Heath, who put up 16 points last year against No. 20 Arizona State as a freshman. And with Allyah Marlett, who scored 15 points against Utah State last year during her debut season. And with Dasha Macmillan, a 6-foot sweet-shooting perimeter player who the team feels could make a run for Freshman of the Year in the conference.
And those are the reserves.
The starting lineup — junior Briana Autrey-Thompson, senior Emily Conroe, senior Kaelin Immel, junior Riley Snyder and sophomore Nikki McDonald — remains intact from a year ago when the Falcons set program records for conference wins (they went 7-11 in the Mountain West), while improving their overall win total for the fourth consecutive year under Gobrecht.
“It’s so awesome,” Immel said of the atmosphere surrounding the team. “You can tell in practice. Everyone wants to get in. Everyone wants to make an impact on this team.
“The seniors, we’ve been waiting for this since our freshman year. We finally have a group of experienced girls, and we have that group of incoming freshmen and younger players who are talented and are skilled. It’s cool to see that all come together, and just the fact that we believed in ourselves and put in all that work; I guess it will be excited to see what we can accomplish together.”
The depth — Gobrecht says the second team could likely have defeated Air Force’s squad from two years ago, and definitely the one from three years ago — could prove particularly important this year as COVID-19 looms as an ever-present threat. If the Falcons must retreat to practice-only settings for extended times, they feel they can continue to improve. If a key player is lost to the virus or its protocols for a stretch, the next player figures to possess enough talent to soften the blow. The team even did without the all-male practice squad it generally employs, because it had the numbers and ability to do what it needed in practice and didn’t feel the need to add more potential for virus exposure.
Now, they just need games. Gobrecht said she was assured Tuesday that the coronavirus issues that prompted the Denver men’s team to postpone a game with Air Force next week was not impacting the women. But she also knows things change rapidly. She compared the cautiously optimistic feeling with Charlie Brown desperately wanting to kick the football even though it might be pulled away at the last minute.
COVID protocols cost Air Force about a week and a half of its six-week preseason practice schedule, so the impact has already been felt. But the fun vibe around this season persists anyway.
“I think everyone’s excited to get out there and show what they can do,” Immel said. “And show what Air Force can do.”
STARTING FIVE INTACT
Air Force women’s basketball returns the five starters that helped it close the regular season with five wins in seven games, an in-conference surge never seen for the program.
Briana Autrey-Thompson, 5-6, junior guard
Two-year starter; led the team with 4.1 assists per game last year; owns four career 20-point games.
Emily Conroe, 5-10, senior guard
Led the team with 7.5 rebounds per game last year and was third in scoring (8.1 ppg); three-year starter.
Kaelin Immel, 5-9, senior guard
2019-20 all-Mountain West selection; second-leading scorer in program history (in its Division I era).
Nikki McDonald, 5-11, sophomore forward
Started the final 12 games last season, helping the team to a 6-6 mark in those games after a 4-15 start. Shot 47.4% over final nine games.
Riley Snyder, 6-0, junior forward
Averaged 14.2 ppg last year, second on the team; 34 points in win at New Mexico was most in a game for any Mountain West player last season.