PALATINE HILL -- The Lewis & Clark Pioneers finished with a 2-14 Northwest Conference record last season, just three years removed from a conference championship.
With a new coach and a roster that remains virtually unchanged, the Pios enter the 2016-17 season with hope to move up the NWC standings.
Pamela Findlay takes over the program after four years as an assistant coach for Washington and Lee, an NCAA Division III institution in Lexington, Va. Findlay brought in former two-time NWC Player of the Year Kristina Williams as her primary assistant coach with the goal of returning Lewis & Clark to heights Williams and her teammates enjoyed with three NCAA Div. III Championship tournament appearances from 2010-13.
While Lewis & Clark's lone senior, Kaitlin Mathewson, graduated from last year's team, her former classmate, Sarah Anderson, is one of this year's three seniors. Anderson was supposed to play her last season a yaer ago, but an injury kept her off the roster. As a result, the three-point shooter and vocal leader will have her finale this year. Ayisat Afolabi, an All-NWC selection as a sophomore, brings her team-leading 8.9 rebounds per game and second-best 10.5 points per game back for her senior season. The athletic forward is expected to be an even better rebounder in 2016-17 and is a lockdown defender. Deja Nicholas transferred to Lewis & Clark last season, but played only three games. The point guard has tremendous quickness and will be key in transition.
Miyah Leith led the Pioneers in scoring last year and is part of a junior class that will play a significant amount into the success that Lewis & Clark has this year. Leith ranked sixth in the NWC with 13.6 points per game while playing the fourth-most minutes, 34.3, in the conference last season. The lockdown defender has an improved outside shot and is expected to improve yet again following another offseason of notable hard work. The only player to log more minutes than Leith last season was Cianna Ochoco, who averaged 36.2 minutes per game, has an incredible basketball IQ and improved over the summer. Natalie Kelly took fantastic strides during her sophomore season, going from 1.6 to 9.2 points per game from her first to second season. She shot 36.3 from 3-point range and runs the floor nicely. Rachel Cox is tough defender who has improved again in that regard. She played 17 games last season and scored a season-best 13 points against George Fox. Jackie Lizarraga did not play last season and served in a student assistant role instead. A solid defensive rebounder with a quality mid-range shot, Lizarraga is a fun teammate who played in 12 games her freshman season. Lauren Wood is expected to have an impact more like her freshman season when she averaged 7.1 points and 5.4 rebounds per contest in 25 games. A leader who runs the floor hard, she is an offensive threat in the post. The tallest player on the team, Kelley Koeppen played in 23 games last season and scored four points per game to go with 3.8 rebounds per contest. A positive force on the team, Koeppen can box off any player the Pios will see this year.
Without any new freshman players, three sophomores make up the underclassmen and all should contribute this season. Sara Hogman is a crafty player who does all the little defensive things incredibly well. She made 13 starts and played in 23 games in her first season, scoring 5.5 points per game on 36 percent shooting from 3-point range while leading the team in steals. Janessa Willie battled injuries last season and scored 2.1 points per game in seven appearances. Capable of penetrating and hitting the outside shot, she's been a vocal leader in practice leading into the Pioneers' first games of the season. Alyx Crager is similar in her ability to drive or shoot to score. A spark when needed for the team, Crager returns after playing 12 games in 2015-16 where she scored 5.2 points per game.
Lewis & Clark lost to Portland State, 96-69, in an exhibition before losing the season opener, 60-56, to Corban. The Pios outscored Corban, 23-10, to take a halftime lead before losing by four. The team will play numerous other opponents from Corban's NAIA Cascade Conference in the non-league schedule. Aside from those, the Pioneers host Redlands and travel to the D3Hoops.com Classic in Las Vegas for games against Simpson and Stevens in late December.
After the NWC home opener against Pacific Lutheran and the road opener at Linfield on Dec. 2 and 3, respectively, Lewis & Clark plays three-straight conference road games after the calendar turns to 2017. From there, the Pios host six of the next seven games and play Senior Night against Pacific on Feb. 17.