BY DEAN HOCKNEY
KOKOMO, Ind. – In 2011, the Indiana University Kokomo athletic program launched with women’s volleyball and men’s basketball. With the success of local high school girls hoops teams, sports fans immediately began asking about a women’s basketball program for the Cougars. Four years later, they are getting their wish as the IU Kokomo squad has started practice and the first game is one month away.
The Cougars will be young in every aspect of its game – coaching, players and preparation. But first-year coach Whitney Farris, who has spent last year as an assistant coach on the men’s team and previously served as the IU Kokomo sports information director, understands baby steps are needed as she launches the women’s program.
“It is a long process, and I have to keep telling the team it is a long process,” said Farris, who played NCAA Division I basketball at Valparaiso University. “They are not going to get everything their first time, especially when we are putting in an offense and a defense. We will just keep working and doing a lot of teaching and learning. We have a lot of kids who can take some criticism and learn from it.”
Unlike teams that have a new coach, the Cougars do not have the luxury of any returning players to quickly learn a new system. Every player this year is new to collegiate basketball, with the exception of junior Ancilla College transfer Hope Wagner. In all, this year’s squad will consist of 11 freshmen and one junior.
“We have had a lot of great surprises,” said Farris, who played on the 2003 IHSAA Class 4A undefeated state champion Kokomo squad. “I am still getting to know all of these kids – and they are still getting to know each other. I am surprised at how hard they are working under these circumstances. A lot of them have exceeded our expectations.”
But that doesn’t mean the squad doesn’t have big-game leadership – Lela Crawford helped lead her Tipton quad to the Final Four last year, as did Katrina Nevendorf of Logansport, and Alanis Jones played under the spotlight for Kokomo’s Lady Wildkats. Now, it is a matter of finding who will step up.
“We don’t have the upperclassmen to show the younger girls what to do, but we do have some who are stepping up,” said Farris. “To have 11 freshmen and one junior, I told them they will have to grow up quickly. Everyone has to be a leader at this point, even if that just means showing up to practice and working as hard as you can. We have different practice captains every day so we can try and get someone to step up into a leadership role, and that seems to be helping.”
One thing Farris will have to adjust to is a lack of scouting reports for upcoming opponents since the Cougars have never played a collegiate game.
“We will just have to prepare to play a game,” said Farris. “We will have to focus on us since we don’t know what to expect. We will have to go out and play hard. What we talk about in practice I will want to see on the court during a game. And that is about the only thing we can do – focus on ourselves and not the opponent. With all of these freshmen, they will have to learn the college game is much faster. But they will adjust.”
The inaugural roster for the Cougars squad includes: Alanis Jones (5-10, Fr., Kokomo); Lela Crawford (5-8, Fr., Tipton); Katrina Nevendorf (5-8, Fr., Logansport); Dejianna Butler (5-10, Fr., Evansville Bosse); Tabitha DeWitt (6-0, Fr., North Manchester); Kiersten Eley (5-9, Fr., Fort Wayne Snider); Deja Felder (5-5, Fr., Goshen); Nevada Jones (5-5, Fr., Fort Wayne Northrop); Marli Leazenby (5-8, Fr., Caston); Lauren Pressley (5-9, Fr., Indianapolis Irvington Prep); Hope Wagner (5-9, Jr., Knox via Ancilla College); and Whitney Williamson (6-0, Fr., Brown County).
The Cougars launch its inaugural women’s basketball campaign in the friendly confines of Cougar Gym on Nov. 4 when Ohio Christian University visits. IU Kokomo will have 13 home games this season, closing with Point Park University on Feb. 14 for Senior Night – although the Cougars will have to wait at least one year before honoring any seniors. Local fans should circle Dec. 11 on their calendars as the Cougars will travel to Indianapolis to play NCAA Division I IUPUI – a program led by Northwestern graduate Austin Parkinson and featuring former Western standout Nicole Rogers.
The inaugural season of Cougar women’s basketball roars to life at the Cougar Gym during the first week of November, and while the team is young, the players will be hungry for success and should be entertaining on the court.