In the 2016-17 basketball season, John Moon blocked 73 shots and McKenzie Stanford finished as the Heartland Conference’s second all-time leading scorer with 1,715 points. As Oklahoma Christian University basketball returns to the Eagles’ Nest, Coach Cory Cole and Coach Stephanie Findley look to build teams and create success without key athletes like Moon and Stanford.
During his first season as head coach of the Eagles, Cole led the Eagles to an 8-18 season, with just three wins in the Heartland Conference.
“We didn’t finish strong, which was kind of our mojo for the whole season,” Cole said. “I think that’s something we’ve taken into the off-season to come back and really try to finish strong and win games.”
However, Cole returned just 4 players from last year’s roster for this season. One of those returning players, senior Abel Rodriguez, said the fresh start with new players will bring positivity and a different atmosphere for the Eagles.
“We brought in a lot of junior college guys who already have some experience,” Rodriguez said. “I think we have a lot more unselfish players this year, so that doesn’t affect the chemistry at all—it actually helps it. I think we have a lot of good players with different things they bring to the table.”
During preseason, the basketball team woke up for 6 a.m. workouts to prepare for the upcoming season.
“If you can control your body, you can control the game,” Cole said. “Getting up at 6 a.m., it shapes you. It creates that commitment. Guys got up at 6 o’clock and this is why you play at 7 p.m., to showcase that.”
The Eagles play Nov. 4 at 3 p.m. in their homecoming exhibition against Randall University. Because this game does not count toward the season record, Cole said he just wants to see his team utilize this opportunity to get better.
“Winning that game or losing that game, it means nothing,” Cole said. “At the end of the day, you’re 0-0. You’re just making sure you’re getting better for your opening game. I like the fact that it’s going to be a packed house. A different energy, a different vibe, a different pressure to kind of preform in front of your alumni, the student body and against a good team. The team we’re playing is a small school that does a lot of winning, so they’re going to test us. I’m excited to see how our guys react. It’s one of those situations you can’t really duplicate in practice.”
Rodriguez played in 18 games last season and averaged 1.4 rebounds per game. For his senior season, he said he wants to do his best and help the younger players.
“This is the last season of my college career, so I just want to make the most of it,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve been around this for quite a while, so if I could just leave the young guys and give them as much advice to help them contribute to the team, that would be a good goal.”
The Lady Eagles closed last season with a loss to University of Arkansas-Fort Smith in the first round of the Heartland Conference tournament. During the game, Oklahoma Christian overcame a 27-point halftime deficit to pull within five points in the fourth quarter. Unable to overcome the Arkansas-Fort Smith lead, the Lady Eagles lost 105-94 to finish the season 15-14.
“I thought we were playing pretty well at the end of the year,” Findley said. “Then, we got to the conference tournament. First half of that game, we couldn’t make a bucket and then the second half was unbelievable. We were way behind at halftime and we just went full speed, because we were so far behind. I really like the way we responded after halftime. But I graduated quite a few people off of that team. I really felt really good about the response, not the start.”
Findley graduated all but six players last year. With only six players returning, Findley signed eight freshmen and one transfer student.
Findley said she believes the young girls will struggle with the physicality of college play early in the season, but they will improve as the season progresses.
“It will be tough early, because it’s a different level of physical play,” Findley said. “You can’t experience this in high school and you can’t really experience it in practice. It’s a rude awakening those first few games. It’s hard on you and it wears you out. The speed and size of people is way different from high school. Luckily, the one girl that I got that was a transfer, she played at Northwestern Oklahoma State University in Alva, OK her first year and then played at Murray State College last year, so she’s had some experience and I think that will help inside.”
One of the returning players, junior Addy Clift, averaged 42.4 percent from 3-point range last season and was named to the preseason All-Heartland Conference team. Clift said her outlook for this upcoming season is positive because of the good team chemistry already established.
“I am excited and I already feel so blessed with the team I am on,” Clift said. “I am going to stand behind them every step of the way.”
The Lady Eagles will play York College in their homecoming exhibition game Nov. 4 at 1 p.m.