The New Mexico State women's basketball team does not play like a team that has won just three games against Division I competition nor do seniors Tabytha Wampler and Kaitlyn Soto play like a pair of players just riding out their final playing days. With a new coaching staff, the transition hasn't always been smooth this season but the Aggies continued to play hard even as losses continued to pile up in the non-conference portion of the schedule. A one-point season opening victory over Houston gave way to a string of eight consecutive losses. They came in all forms, some by minuscule margins, some by large margins, some at the buzzer, some in overtime and some that were historically bad. But through it all, the Aggies continued to play hard and hold their heads up high and much of that credit is due to their head coach Mark Trakh and his stay-positive attitude with the group but a great deal of the credit lies on the shoulders of the four seniors and in particular Wampler and Soto.
"I didn't expect coming in the positivity that comes with Coach Trakh," said Soto who has taken over the role of starting point guard. "I think it's somewhat refreshing, especially for us older kids. Even though we're making a lot of mistakes he's very patient and I think we all really appreciate that."
While the team struggled early on offensively to adapt to the new system it was senior forward Tabytha Wampler who was a steady force for the Aggies posting seven double-doubles, matching her entire total from the 2010-11 season, and several near double-doubles all the while battling the foul trouble that has seemingly plagued her entire career. Despite an apparent need to carry the scoring load while her teammates found their way in the new system, Wampler said she felt no pressure to carry the team. "No pressure, no pressure. It's easy when you have really good teammates and excellent coaches so [there was] no pressure," said Wampler. "You still get nervous before every game, you still want to perform well but when you have your coaches and your teammates supporting you, and I support them, we all support each other."
Most nights the Aggies struggle to break the 60-point barrier but there are glimpses of what the offense is designed to do. Constant movement by all five players on the court, a requirement in Trakh's motion offense, are designed to get players good open looks. The system works, the looks have been there but hitting the open shots has been an issue at times. "The shots are there and the game plan is there, it's just executing it," said associate head coach Tamara Inoue. "The fact that the movement is there, that is a big thing with Coach Trakh. You're never to stand. That's something we never want to do, we always want to make sure the defense is working to what we want. Obviously a lot of glimpses, now the challenge is to put it together for 40 minutes."
The Aggies showed more of those glimpses in the second half of their victory over Idaho this past Saturday. After struggling through the end of the first half, scoring just 11 points in the final 14 minutes, the Aggie offense exploded for 38 points in the second half and won going away. The Aggies started hitting some of those open shots and their defense, which has been a constant throughout the season, kicked into a higher gear. "I think our defense really stepped up and we really go them frustrated and then I think that built confidence for us offensively and we executed our plays that coach was calling and actually knocking them [shots] down," said Inoue. "That helps."
The second half was perhaps a the "aha" moment of the building process that has been ongoing all season. Soto believes that the team is finally starting to play instinctively in the system. " I think before we had to think so much and when you're thinking you're not playing," said Soto. "I think now we just get out there and we read off each other and it's just so much easier."
The Aggies' continued improvement and subsequent victories will also depend on the continued improved play from seniors Erica Sanchez, Kelsie Rozendaal as well as redshirt sophomore Camila Rosen and sophomore Jasmine Rutledge. "At the beginning it was Kaitlyn and Tabytha, now Camila is in the picture and Kelsie is in the picture and now we've got Erica Sanchez in the picture and Jasmine Rutledge… the fact that people are improving and stepping up for us a big gift to the coaching staff," said Inoue. "Meela has done a really good job for us and her stepping up, now that relieves pressure off of Tabytha, relieves pressure off of Kaitlyn Soto, relieves pressure off of Erica Sanchez. Kelsie Rozendaal is our best percentage shooter, you've now got five tools out there that can help us. I think we've been four offensively and now we have five and [Jasmine] Rutledge coming in."
League play also gives the Aggies an opportunity for a fresh start and as the Aggies head to San Jose State and then on to Hawai'i this weekend, it's an opportunity for the team to come away with one or possibly even two victories. A top-heavy league that is dominated by three teams, Fresno State, Utah State and Louisiana Tech, means that spots four through eight are up for grabs. "What's great about our league is you never know who is going to win," said Soto. Utah State beat Louisiana Tech [in Ruston] and I think it's anyone's ballgame which is really good for us. I think, especially with our team, any given night we could show up and beat anybody."
Inoue feels the same way, "I think splitting this first home series, it has now given our kids the mindset of "We're okay." It's shown our kids that we're good enough to do it."
No matter what happens the rest of the season, the seniors, in particular Wampler and Soto, have given the Aggie program a blueprint to build off of for the future. "You can't ask for anything better than for your upperclassmen to step up and they're really paving the way for what Coach Trakh wants our young ones to see," said Inoue "The fact is that all four seniors are contributing tremendously and for a coaching staff to see the four seniors step up, that's the best thing you can have as a new staff."