Recognition is always nice, but to the Central Washington University women’s basketball team, it means nothing even if the Wildcats were selected as the top squad in the GNAC preseason coaches poll.

“It doesn’t really matter. It’s just preseason,” said senior Alexis Pana. “I just think we need to focus on our little details on the things that Randy (Richardson) wants us to focus on so we can execute this year.”

What it does do though is give Central an extra boost of confidence heading into the 2019-20 season, but it doesn’t change the expectations the Wildcats have for themselves.

Central finished 18-11 overall, 12-8 in the GNAC last year. It placed them fourth in the standings and a bid to the GNAC tourney which saw the Wildcats eliminated in the semifinals after an opening-round win over Concordia.

Now returning four starters and key reserves along with six freshmen, Central is primed to make a run for the GNAC title.

“That’s our goal, that’s what we want. That’s where our sights are set,” said head coach Richardson. “We haven’t done it before, so we have to do things that we’ve never done before in order to achieve that. It’s been neat because our team is hungry and excited about the season ahead of them and wanting to achieve that.”

The starting lineup will feature GNAC Preseason Player of the Year Pana who averaged 13.9 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 4.8 assists per game in 27 appearances.

Also returning is Ellensburg High School grad junior Kassidy Malcolm. The 5-foot-11 forward started in 29 games and averaged 11.2 points along with pulling down 8.8 rebounds per game. She was selected to the preseason All-GNAC team.

The other two returners are seniors forwards Kaelie Flores and Taylor Shaw.

“It makes me feel confident,” Pana said of having the majority of the starters back. “I came in and we lost our whole senior squad last year and we had a whole new five, we only had one returner last year.

“… Having the experience will help us out a lot.”

It also gives Richardson peace of mind having that cohesive unit.

“It’s exciting,” she said. “It gives me a little more confidence heading into the year and knowing what I have in those four starters that are returning.”

The Wildcats will attain plenty of depth beyond those four starters in sophomores Samantha Bowman and Brianna Phiakhamngon, and seniors JonNae Richardson and MJ Lancaster.

With Central plagued with a few injuries at the moment, Phiakhamngon and Bowman each saw over 30 minutes in the Wildcats 74-65 win over Division III Whitman College last Saturday. The sophomores scored in double figures.

“It’s been really fun to see Samantha Bowman and Brianna Phiakhamngon step up and really see their growth from their freshman year to sophomore year. They’re definitely not playing like underclassmen. They really have an opportunity to make an impact this year as well.”

FOCUSES

After Richardson’s first season in 2017-18, Central ranked second to last in points allowed in the GNAC (70.9), so that was a primary focus heading into 2018-19. Central tightened up, allowing 67.1 points per game the, but it’s still a focal point.

“Defense is kind of part of that game where we really need to tighten up and lockdown,” Richardson said.

But what’s also salient for the Wildcats is rebounding on both sides of the ball. Central ranked fourth in offensive rebounding (37.5 per game) and seventh in defensive rebounding (36.8 per game).

“Technically, we’re giving players more specific roles in that and also really emphasizing that as a focus for specific players on our team who have great rebounding ability and making sure that’s in the forefront of their mind that it’s their role as they step up,” Richardson said.

NEWCOMERS

Central added six new faces — all freshmen. It didn’t bring in any transfers, as Richardson felt it was a “good opportunity to bring in a good young corps to kind of learn from our returners and their experience and build that up.”

One of them in particular that Richardson mentioned was Tori Maeda out of Honolulu, Hawaii. The 5-foot-4 guard played in 22 minutes versus Whitman.

“Tori Maeda has really stepped up this preseason and has kind of proven herself to be a solid player for us,” Richardson said. “… I think she’ll definitely get some consistent minutes based off what she’s done this preseason.”

Central hosts Stanislaus State at 4 p.m. this Friday.

Luke Olson: lolson@kvnews.com; on Twitter: @lukeolsonb

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