Western senior guard Emmery Wagstaff

Source: Mountaineer Athletics

As October rolls on and Gunnison gets its first dusting of snow, it’s time to start thinking about Mountaineer women’s basketball at Western. You may think that with 11 additions to last year’s team and just a handful of returning players, this will be a rebuilding year for the Mountaineers. 

But two of those returners, Senior sharpshooter guards Samantha Coleman and Emmergy Wagstaff, were adamant that this is not the case. “It’s exciting, the amount of talent we brought in this year,” said Coleman, while admitting that the slew of additions has been a bit of a culture shock for the team generally, and for the new players individually making the leap to college or a new school. 

The team will also have to contend with the loss of star sophomore Hannah Cooper, who made the All-Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference (RMAC) first team in 2020-21. Cooper utilized the transfer portal to head to Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma (a Division-I school) for her junior season. 

But the players that did return boast a wealth of experience and accolades. Coleman, Wagstaff, and senior forward Katie Dalton have all picked up second team All-RMAC honors before, and have played more than ten seasons of collegiate basketball between them. Courtney Humbarger, a senior in her fourth year with Western, also brings experience to the team. 

Western senior guard Samantha Coleman

Source: Mountaineer Athletics

Last winter, the Mountaineers played well in a Covid-marred season, earning the second seed in the NCAA Tournament West region. It was their second year in a row making the tournament. Before the 2019-20 season, the Mountaineers had never made the national tournament. 

The 2019-20 NCAA Division-II Tournament was cancelled due to the surging Covid-19 virus, but the Mountaineers had a chance to play last year, falling to Westminster in the West Region semifinals after a first-round bye. This year, they are eager to return and make an even bigger splash. 

“I think the amount of skill and chemistry we are going to build early in the season is going to be huge for us,” said Coleman. “I think we can go as far as we want to” she noted, stressing the importance of gelling as a team and learning how to play together early on. Hopefully, this will set the team up for successful runs in the RMAC Conference and NCAA Tournament. 

In her 5th year, Coleman is undoubtedly a team leader and a go-to person for the younger team members. A shooting guard, Coleman was the leading scorer back in 2019-20, when she was honored with a second team All-RMAC selection. In the condensed and turbulent 2020-21 season, she earned the same RMAC distinction. This year, she is working to become a better passer and facilitator to add depth to her game and complement her scoring prowess. 

Coleman surveys the court

Source: Mountaineer Athletics

Last year, Wagstaff transferred to Western from Utah State Eastern after two seasons, where she made an immediate impact for the Mountaineers. Wagstaff set the school record for three pointers made (9) in a 83-70 win over Adams State. That effort eclipsed current teammate Coleman’s prior record of seven, which she shared with two former players. The 33 points put by Wagstaff were good for the seventh-most points ever in a game in team history. 

Wagstaff was not able to visit Western in person during the height of Covid-19 when she was looking to transfer, but she was able to Zoom with the Mountaineers team and speak with the coaches. Luckily for the Mountaineers team, she said the decision just felt right. 

Now in her senior season, Wagstaff is ready to step into a leadership role after plugging in to the team last year, and earning All-RMAC second team honors. She is impressed by this team’s work ethic over the offseason. “These girls love to get into the gym, and it’s paying off,” Wagstaff notes, adding that she thinks this Western squad will surprise conference foes with its talent and hustle.

Coleman and Wagstaff both noted that a huge part of their task this year is to get the team on the same page in terms of values and goals, and to pass on the welcoming and tight-knit team culture that made them want to play for Western in the first place. Like with most athletic teams, Covid-19 was a setback.

“It took a mental toll on us,” says Coleman. Covid-19 cancelled games, reduced interaction both inside and outside the team, and kept the fan base they worked so hard to expand out of Western’s Paul Wright Gym. 

Basketball has become a big part of the Western community, thanks in large part to the leadership of Lora Westling, the Mountaineer’s head coach. In her first five seasons, Westling racked up 66 total wins, the most of any coach in Western’s history, and guided the team to its first-ever NCAA Championship berths. 

She had the team ranked as high as #7 in women’s Division-II basketball last year, their highest ranking ever. “We have gained a lot of respect throughout the conference. People know our program,” said Wagstaff of Westling’s tenure.

Wagstaff navigates through the lane

Source: Mountaineer Athletics

15 teams play women’s basketball in the RMAC. Western historically had a rivalry with their southern neighbor Adams State, but that rivalry has been overtaken in the minds of current players by a series of exciting and close games with Colorado Mesa University, a favorite opponent for players and fans alike. 

The Colorado School of Mines has proved a worthy adversary as well, splitting their series with Western last year and nabbing the top seed in the region’s National Championship bracket. The Orediggers went 17-3 last season to Western’s 14-6, but had to sit out the NCAA Tournament due to Covid protocols. 

Western’s young roster is rather unusual in a Covid-19 season, when some teams have nearly identical rosters from last year due to the NCAA granting a bonus year of eligibility. Transfers between schools, increasingly allowed under NCAA rules in certain circumstances, will add an extra layer of unpredictability and excitement.

Western itself picked up three transfers, including senior Grace Kirscher. Kirscher played three seasons with the Eastern Washington University Eagles in the Division-I Big Sky Conference, averaging 10.1 points per game last season.

Western senior Grace Kirscher playing for the Eagles of Eastern Washington

Source: Eastern Washington University Athletics

Looking ahead, senior guard Coleman received her undergraduate degree and just started her Master’s in Behavioral Science at Western. “I love Western, I love my coaches, and I thought it would be an awesome opportunity to start my Master’s,” said Coleman. She hopes to go on to play professional basketball in Europe when her Western career has concluded. 

“It’s our last dance; at the end of the day I want to go as far as we can with this team” remarked Coleman, referencing the popular Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls docuseries released in 2020. 

Wagstaff is also excited to “ball out” this year, but will also have another season of eligibility left over and plans to make full use of her bonus year.  

The Mountaineers officially begin their season on Halloween with a road matchup against New Mexico. Western will open their conference season a few weeks later against Fort Lewis at home on Nov. 17. With Dalton, Wagstaff, and Coleman leading a talented young squad, the Mountaineers will look to make some noise.