A year after the Fort Lewis College women’s basketball team finished one spot out of the eight-team Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference tournament, the conference’s coaches expect the Skyhawks to be there in 2021.
FLC was picked eighth in the RMAC preseason coaches poll released Tuesday. The Skyhawks earned 102 points in the poll, one behind seventh-place Regis and only three points out of sixth, held by South Dakota Mines.
Defensing champion Colorado Mesa University was once again picked to win the conference with 189 points and eight first-place votes. Western Colorado was picked second with 179 points and three first-place votes, while Westminster College was selected third with 177 points and four first-place votes.
“The biggest thing for us is we’re not going to look too deep into it,” FLC head coach Orlando Griego said. “It does provide a motivation factor. We will play with a chip on our shoulder. The girls are motivated and ready to go out and compete.”
Last year, FLC lost seven consecutive games to close the season to finish 15-12 overall and 11-11 in RMAC play. Four of the losses came by three points or less. That kept a young but talented Skyhawks team out of the conference tournament by only one game.
FLC lost twice to conference champion Colorado Mesa University by three points in each game. The Skyhawks were able to split with conference power Westminster College in a pair of games each decided by two points.
Griego feels this year’s Skyhawks team has learned from those close games and is primed to charge into a conference-only schedule in 2020-21 ready to come out on top in those contests.
“With our experience in close games, sometimes you need a year of getting that experience. We got a lot of it last year, more than what I wanted, but we got it,” Griego said. “Now, we’re going to lean on it. We know how to finish games and know what it takes to win. That will favor us moving forward. We are looking forward to playing the top-ranked teams in the nation that are in our conference.”
The WBCA Division II national poll will not be released until January.
For FLC, senior guard Katrina Chandler of Durango, senior guard Sydney Candelaria of Albuquerque and sophomore forward Jordan Vasquez of Farmington were named RMAC preseason “players to watch.”
Chandler, in her second season with FLC after she transferred to her hometown college after two years at Colorado Mesa, averaged 9.7 points and 3.3 assists per game a year ago.
Last season, Candelaria averaged 8.8 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game. Vasquez was the surprise freshman sensation who led FLC with 12.1 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. She led the conference in offensive rebounding and connected on 50.6% of her shots to rank second in the conference.
Griego feels she is right in the mix as one of the top players in the RMAC along with Colorado Mesa’s Danielle Turner, Racquel Winetjes of Black Hills State, Denali Pinto of Colorado School of Mines and Whitney Jacob of Regis.
“Don’t count out Jordan Vasquez,” Griego said. “With a year of experience under her belt, she’s going to go out there and do her thing.”
FLC hopes to return to practice Friday after a 14-day quarantine because of a positive COVID-19 test on the team. That led the season opener against South Dakota Mines scheduled for Saturday to be postponed. Now, the Skyhawks aim to open the season Dec. 4-5 at home against Chadron State and Black Hills State.