The Ashland Eagles Women’s Basketball squad entered the 2015-16 season with a very young team. The roster had just two seniors amongst them, while long time top assistant Robyn Fralick would make her debut as head coach.
None of that seems to matter as the Eagles are one of the last three undefeated teams in the nation. Sitting at 18-0, the Eagles have continued their climb to the elite, as they reached No. 3 on the USA Today Coaches Poll, their highest ranking thus far in the season.
Last week saw the Eagles face their two biggest challenges yet. They came out triumphant and battle tested, poised to make their final run to the National Championships.
AU first overcame a double-digit deficit against Findlay for a comeback victory on Thursday. Two nights later, they would hang on to win a double overtime thriller against Wayne State on the road.
“This past weekend we were very challenged down 13 in the first half versus Findlay and in a battle for the entire game at Wayne State,” head coach Robyn Fralick said. “When you look back and reflect, there’s a lot of things we need to clean up, but I was really just proud of the way they showed some fight, resiliency and poise during many critical possessions.”
Despite being in her first year as head coach, Fralick has been able to build on and keep consistent the same philosophy that has made Ashland one of the premier powers in DII basketball. Finding players that have bought into that philosophy has allowed them to rise above some of the bigger challenges — such as this past weekend — that they have faced.
“This team has had great chemistry all year,” Fralick said. “They are all invested regardless of how many minutes they play, they’re all invested in being great teammates. I think that was reflected in finding ways to win some tough situations. They’ve bought into each other.”
The starting lineup consists of one senior. McKenzie Miller was a freshman when the Eagles went 38-1 and took home the National Championship in 2013. She didn’t start a single game that season, and now finds herself one of the leaders of one of the best teams in the nation.
“Kenzie didn’t get to play much that year,” Fralick said on Miller’s freshman season. “She really is a kid that came through the program and improved every year. It’s been fun to see her senior year her playing her best basketball. She knows what that National Championship team looked like, what that locker room looked like, what the practices looked like, so that’s a very good thing with all of our underclassmen.”
Also leading the way are a pair of sophomore sensations building off impressive freshmen seasons.
Andi Daugherty — the reigning Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year — is coming off a huge week that saw her take home both the GLIAC Player of the Week as well as USBWA National Player of the Week honors. It wasn’t merely the fact that she dropped 53 points in the two come from behind victories, it was that she scored 33 of those points in the second half or overtime. When the Eagles needed her most, she dug deep and rose to the occasion.
Laina Snyder also played a pivotal role in the double overtime victory, pulling down 18 rebounds and scoring 15 points. Together with Daugherty, the two have taken home a combined six (three a piece) GLIAC Player of the Week Awards this season.
“Andi and Laina had great freshman years and they both have improved in all aspects of the game.” Fralick said. “They know how to make winning plays. Whether it’s a tough finish or a big rebound or a great defensive stop. They both have consistently throughout their careers here made winning plays.”
At 18-0, comparisons to the 2013 team are certainly expected. That team was a dominant force that excelled in every aspect of the game. That team — which fell six points short in the 2012 finals — made sure they put the exclamation mark on that season.
“The biggest similarity is that statistically there is some overlap when you look at points per game, field goal percentage, defense and rebounding margin,” Fralick said. “But other than that, these are very different teams, different styles of play. The philosophy of the program offensively and defensively is very consistent, but they are all different people. The dynamic is going to be different, our styles, our strengths are a little bit different.”
One big similarity is that Kari Pickens is on the sideline. The assistant coach was not merely one of AU’s all-time greats, but highly regarded in all of DII Women’s basketball. Pickens was a two-time National Player of the Year as well as the Most Outstanding Player of the 2013 National Champions.
“Coach Pickens was one of the best players ever in the history of DII basketball,” Fralick said. “We’re fortunate to have her, she’s an incredible coach and a winner.”
The Eagles' chemistry doesn't simply give the team the feel of a family, they have quite literally made the team part of the family. Pickens younger sister is none other than AU's leading scorer Andi Daugherty. Joining Fralick and Pickens on the bench is assistant coach Tim Fralick, Robyn's husband.
“It’s been fun," head coach Fralick said of being able to coach alongside her husband. "He’s a great coach. It’s been an ambition to add him to the staff with his knowledge and his experience.”
The Eagles return home this Thursday night, but that won’t make it any easier. They face Ohio Dominican who currently sit in second place behind AU in the GLIAC South Division. This team knows they can’t get ahead of themselves, and prepare for every challenge as if it were their last.
“The focus has to remain really small,” Fralick said. “They know every game is the biggest game, and our goal is to win every possession. After a win, when you watch film there is a lot of things to improve upon. There’s that consistency and theme that we have a lot of areas to continue to grow in, and that’s how we keep the focus small. Every day we have a duty to continue to improve ourselves.”
More change at the top
For the third consecutive week, a new team sits atop the USA Today Coaches Poll. Lubbock Christian University picked up two commanding victories this past week. LCU first defeated Texas-Permian Basin 70-34 and then followed that up with a 78-62 victory over St. Edwards. They now sit at 17-0 with their first No. 1 ranking in the poll as a DII program.
They have done it behind a balanced attack. The Lady Chaps have the nation’s second best scoring defense allowing a mere 52.1 points a night. They also possess the second best scoring margin in the nation, defeating opponents by 27.6 points behind 14 victories of 20 or more points.
Missouri Western’s undefeated run has come to and end, leaving Limestone, Ashland and LCU as the last undefeated teams in the nation.
The week began on a positive note for MWSU, as they played in one of the more highly-profiled Games of the Week in handing then-No. 3 Fort Hays their second loss of the season. The game saw Fort Hays build a huge lead up in the first half as the Griffons trailed by 20 points. MWSU would quietly chip away at the lead, and behind a dominant 22-9 third quarter, they would finally get within single digits as the quarter drew to a close. They would trail Fort Hays right up until 34 seconds were left in the game when Sarafina Handy nailed a three-pointer to put MWSU ahead for good. It was their second victory over a top ten team in less than a week, as they defeated the then-No. 9 Emporia State five days earlier.
They then lost to Nebraska Kearney 82-76 seeing an end to their 18-game winning streak. Now at 18-1, MWSU only slips one slot to No. 6 this week. Rebounding will be a difficult task as next up is the dangerous Pittsburgh State (who earned 10 votes in the most recent poll) that find themselves back in the MIAA mix amid a four-game winning streak.
Lewis continues to play strong basketball, leading a Great Lakes Valley Conference that is well represented in the nation’s top 25. This past week — behind Mariyah Brawner-Henley’s 13th double double of the season — they downed Bellarmine, handing them their second conference loss of the season.
Lewis — who held strong at No. 9 in the nation behind an 18-1 record — has been greatly benefited by freshman forward Jessica Kelliher. The reigning GLVC Player of the Week is averaging 18.1 points and 6.4 rebounds a night.
Bellarmine remains on the outside looking in, holding right outside the top 25 gaining 36 votes this past week.
The Game of the Week is a matchup from the GLVC West Division. No. 16 Quincy heads to No. 18 Drury in a battle for the top spot in the West this Thursday evening. A victory for Quincy would help them keep pace with Lewis, as they trail the Flyers by one game in the conference.