Leathernecks have the demeanor, and the options, to deal with change

By John Bohnenkamp

JD Gravina knows the challenges of scheduling during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Western Illinois’ women’s basketball was scheduled to open the season with Bellarmine, but that game got postponed.

So the Leathernecks will open the season with Sunday’s game at Wisconsin.

It’s a bit of a trade up.

Gravina knows that the nonconference schedule may be like that. Postponements, last-minute arrangements — anything is possible.

“There’s a little bit of fun you can have with it,” he said. “You may have to finagle some things.”

It’s going to be that way for Gravina in putting together a lineup and rotation this season.

His teams in the past have had the traditional point guard, a floor leader like Michelle Maher, Emily Clemens and Olivia Kaufmann.

Kaufmann was a Summit League all-conference first-team selection as a senior last season. She’s the only starter not returning.

Gravina said he could go in different directions in filling the point guard role. Elizabeth Lutz and Mackenzie Rogers could be in the traditional role as the floor leader. Or maybe players like Carla Flores and Grace Gilmore could be a different kind of playmaker.

“I know we’ll have some options,” Gravina said. “I don’t know if we’ll have that traditional point guard all of the time. Maybe it will be more of a point-guard-by-committee.”

Flores and Gilmore are two of the returning starters, joining forward Evan Zars and guard Danni Nichols.

“We’ll be solid, especially with those four (starters),” Gravina said.

Gilmore, a 5-foot-10 senior forward, is a defender who can aggravate opponents.

“I think she’s the NCAA’s all-time leader in taking charges,” Gravina said, laughing. “She’s gotten better each year. She’s improved as a shooter. And her percentage will improve by taking more threes, and better threes.”

Flores, a 5-9 sophomore guard from Spain, impressed Gravina in her freshman season.

“When she’s playing confidently and aggressively, she can create things for a lot of different people,” Gravina said. “And Carla is as strong as an ox. She and Grace Gilmore are two of the stronger players I have coached.”

Zars, a preseason second-team all-conference league selection after being the Summit League’s newcomer of the year last season, is a 6-2 junior who played last season after transferring from Saint Louis. She averaged 9.1 points and 9.3 rebounds.

“She’s that player who is so hard for us to find,” Gravina said of Zars’ inside presence. “She should pick up our rebounding numbers, our scoring numbers.”

Nichols averaged 12 points per game last season as a redshirt sophomore.

“I think she’s an underrated player,” Gravina said. “Danni is just really solid.”

Lutz has played in every game the last two seasons. She averaged 5.1 points per game last season. Rogers played in 14 games last season, but is expected to have an expanded role this season.

“Elizabeth is someone who always brings a spark,” Gravina said. “She’s going to get in there and mix things up defensively — she’s a scrapper. And she can score in bunches.

“Mackenzie is a little different. She can knock down the open three, make the passes, do a lot of the little things we need.”

Sam Pryor, a 6-0 junior guard, is a candidate to start after playing in 29 games last season. She leads a deep bench that includes three freshmen from Iowa — forward Maddie Mock (Johnston), guard Mallory McDermott (Cedar Rapids), and guard Anna Deets (Mason City).

“I really like our freshman,” Gravina said.

Forward Kyra Washington, a fifth-year senior, is back, as is sophomore center Alissa Dins, redshirt freshman forward Kennedy Flanagan and junior guard Payton Courier.

“Almost everyone, we think, has a chance to contribute,” Gravina said.

The Leathernecks have had their share of COVID-19 cases during the offseason.

Gravina, though, said his team’s demeanor will help during an unpredictable year.

“We’re a pretty laid-back group,” he said. “I think they can handle this.”

Photo of Western Illinois coach JD Gravina courtesy of Western Illinois Athletics.

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