By Jonathan Pressley
FSW women’s basketball team will open the season ranked No. 8 in the nation according to the latest preseason NJCAA polls. The Bucs hope to build off of last season’s 30-4 record, which ended during their first trip to the national tournament in a loss to then No.1 Wabash Valley in the Sweet Sixteen.
Four players returning from last year’s roster include the pair of All- Suncoast Conference guards Za’Nautica Downs and Nairimar Vargas Reyes.
“We’ve got four sophomores back that have played at that [national] level,” said head coach Kristie Ward. “Now they understand what it takes to compete at the national level, the level of commitment that it takes.”
This team is different from last year’s, where they had the post presence of Tina Stephens and Shondell Vickers, who have left to play for University of Kansas and Georgia Southern University, respectively.
“Our post players are young this year,” Ward explained. “That’s sort of our weakness right now; all the guards will have to really step up in the scoring role because, we talk about this all the time in practice, we’ve lost 50 points between Tina Stephens and Shondell Vickers.”
Downs, also known as the “spark plug” because of her high energy and passion, made a big splash early in her college career. As a freshman, she started 30 games and averaged 15 points, three rebounds, and two assists per game.
But now as a sophomore, she has to transition into a new role.
“I was young [last year], but it’s going to take a lot of hard work,” said Downs. “Like last year we had to learn the same thing and we had to work hard to get to the national championship.”
Originally from Moultrie, Georgia, Downs says the pace of the game was a little different than college ball.
“You don’t play full-court defense the whole game [in Georgia],” said Downs. “You go, you set up in the half-court.”
Downs shot close to 40% from the field last season, but only 31% from long range.
“I know I have to be more consistent with my shot, get in the gym more and we’re good,” Downs said.
After all, she did make First Team all-conference and had an all-star appearance in Atlanta last year. Her hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“She worked a lot on her midrange game because she does a great job with her speed. She gets layups and she can shoot three’s,” said Ward. “So the focus we’ve had her working on this summer is really been pop midrange [jump shots], to get that because she can get past anybody.”
Downs won’t be alone this season. Nairimar Vargas Reyes, who was also an all-star last year, and made Second Team All-Suncoast Conference. She started 29 games as a freshman and averaged eight points per contest and five rebounds, and is ready for the challenge leading the new-look Bucs.
“We just gotta work harder with the freshmen. Even though the freshmen are hard workers, we just gotta keep working hard with them & just leading them,” said Vargas Reyes.
This was a role that the former sophomores filled for Reyes as she transitioned from the speed of basketball in Puerto Rico to the U.S.
“It’s not as fast as the United States. Like it’s totally different. It’s harder,” said Reyes. “There’s more half court [in Puerto Rico], here is more man-to-man.”
When she first arrived, she temporarily started in the post as a face up player to adapt to the pace.
“We knew we were only going to leave [her] there temporarily until she transitioned to the guard and got used to the speed,” said Ward. “That’s why you know that was one of her areas of weakness, just because she never had to do as much of it as she would have to do here.”
As a guard in the U.S, ball handling is key, and if you come from a half-court system, you’re not really asked to handle the ball full-court.
Reyes knew this would be an area to improve this summer, and because of her length and talent, she became versatile on the court and can now play the 2, 3, or 4.
Shekinah Guthrie and Simone Lett are the two other sophomores that can help fill the void left by last year’s squad. Last year, Guthrie averaged about five points and five rebounds a game, while Lett averaged about 11 points and nearly five rebounds.
“We’re very, very young, so we’re trying to understand the process right now. We have two freshmen point guards, so obviously that’s like a quarterback on your football team,” said Ward. “They’re just trying to figure out the grind, what it takes, the level of commitment, trying to be leaders as freshmen, trying to run the program, but we’ve got some really, really talented freshman we’re really excited about.”
One constant theme in this program, and this team, is that nothing is given. It takes hard work.
The whole team, freshmen and sophomore alike, are readying to raise their ranking this season. The next step: taking No. 1.