Preseason polls are typically nothing more than everyone's best guess.
But despite knowing those polls have no bearing on the outcome of the season, Sarah Hill, the starting center for Western Washington University's women's basketball team, didn't take kindly to being ranked third in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference.
"As far as we went last year, we really don't have any respect in the GNAC," Hill said. "We really don't have any pressure on us. ... Nobody thinks that we can do it because, oh, 'It's a rebuilding year.' It's definitely not going to be a rebuilding year."
The Vikings finished last year with a 29-4 record after losing to Ashland, Ohio, in the semifinals of the NCAA Division II National Championships. They also posted a 17-1 record in conference games and will open their season against Fresno Pacific in the West Region Crossover Classic on Sunday, Nov. 8, in Fresno, Calif.
Preseason rankings notwithstanding, WWU will confront the challenge of losing three key seniors from last years' squad in point guard Corinn Waltrip, forward Trishi Williams and center Britt Harris. They were the Vikings' three top scorers, combining to average 37.5 points per game, more than half of WWU's overall offensive production.
Replacing that level of experience is a daunting challenge, said junior point guard Jenni White, but certainly not impossible.
"Our youth is really a reflection of that ranking," White said. "I think we have so much talent that we are going to surprise a lot of people."
No matter the talent, one truth remains: this team will look far different than last years. But that's not only in terms of players, but in style of play, too.
"This is the most athletic team Western has had in a long time," Hill said, who is the lone senior on a squad featuring five freshmen on the active roster. "Corinn and Britt were great basketball players with wonderful IQs, but they weren't athletic girls. We have girls that can jump, girls that can run the court and girls that are just athletic enough to get stops even if they don't have the experience."
The younger, more athletic unit is going to look to run more, Hill said, but that doesn't mean the Vikings are going to abandon their defensive-minded mentality. Hill, specifically, who averaged 6.2 points per game last season, is going to be asked to do more offensively, trying to make up for the 14.3 points per game Harris scored in the low post last year.
"Those are some big shoes to fill, and I have never really been a scorer," Hill said. "I need to get on the blocks, and I need to get open and I need to make strong moves and be able to finish my own shots."
Becoming a leader, too, is something Hill has taken upon herself coming into this season. Waltrip was the unquestioned leader and powerful voice in the locker room, but her departure meant somebody had to step up.
For Hill, shouldering the role of a leader has been a foreign concept. She's never had to be so aware of what she was doing so as to not affect her teammates, and she's never had to have such a commanding presence. Before, that burden had always fallen on someone else.
"I've never really been on a team where I had to be the one and only and that is sort of frustrating and challenging," Hill said. "It's all about attitude. I feel like I have a better attitude about things and I take it on as a challenge and assume that responsibility."
Hill acknowledged that the loss of a floor general like Waltrip, who commanded the offense as an extension of coach Carmen Dolfo, isn't a void that can be filled by one person. In the interim, as the team forges its new identity, White will take ownership of the point guard position.
In so doing, Dolfo has already asked White to try to take more of a vocal role on the team. Thing is, that's not quite her nature.
"Personality wise, it's not really my strong point to be super vocal," White said. "(Dolfo) is always telling me I need to talk more ... and so she has really tried to get me to be more assertive and talk to my team."
And while she isn't the most vocal of players, she certainly has the experience to take the reins of the offense. White averaged 17 minutes a game last year while not missing a single contest. Her scoring will likely take a sizable jump from 3.9 points per game as she is asked to do more on the offensive side of the ball, but still, her main focus is getting others the ball.
"I'm either getting my teammates open for a shot or looking for my own stuff off my penetration," Hill said.
Other key returners include junior forward Sydney Donaldson, who averaged 6.2 points per game last season, and junior guard Katie Colard, who averaged 7.6 points per game.
Reach Alex Bigelow at email@example.com or 360-715-2238. Follow on Twitter @bhampsorts for other Whatcom County sports news.
2013-14 WWU WOMEN'S BASKETBALL SCHEDULE
Date Opponent Time
Nov. 8 at Fresno Pacific 5:30 p.m.
Nov. 9 Humboldt State 5:30 p.m.
Nov. 22 at Azusa Pacific 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 23 UC San Diego 3:30 p.m.
Nov. 29 Pacific Lutheran 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 30 Northwest 5 p.m.
Dec. 7 at Simon Fraser* 7:30 p.m.
Dec. 19 Drury 2:15 p.m.
Dec. 20 Texas Woman's 2:15 p.m.
Jan. 2 at Seattle Pacific* 7 p.m.
Jan. 4 at Montana-State Billings* 7 p.m.
Jan. 9 Central Washington* 7 p.m.
Jan. 11 Northwest Nazarene* 5:15 p.m.
Jan. 16 at Western Oregon* 7 p.m.
Jan. 18 at Saint Martin's* 7 p.m.
Jan. 23 Alaska Anchorage* 7 p.m.
Jan. 25 Alaska Fairbanks 7 p.m.
Jan. 30 Montana State-Billings 5:15 p.m.
Feb. 1 Seattle Pacific 5:15 p.m.
Feb. 6 at Northwest Nazarene 7 p.m.
Feb. 8 at Central Washington 7 p.m.
Feb. 13 Saint Martin's 7 p.m.
Feb. 15 Western Oregon 7 p.m.
Feb. 20 at Alaska Fairbanks 5:15 p.m.
Feb. 22 at Alaska Anchorage 5:15 p.m.
March 1 Simon Fraser 7 p.m.
2013-14 WWU WOMEN'S BASKETBALL ROSTER
No. Player Pos. YEAR
0 Sarah Hill F Sr.
15 Rachel Albert F Fr.
20 Katie Colard G Jr.
22 Jenni White G Jr.
23 Marcel Pounds G Jr.
31 Jasmine McCleave F RS Fr.
32 Taylor Peacocke G Fr.
33 Kiana Gandy F RS Fr.
34 Kayla Bernsen C Jr.
35 Aleisha Hathaway G So.
42 Sydney Donaldson F Jr.
44 Tia Briggs F Fr.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH FOR
The Vikings' offense will take on a different look following the graduation of Britt Harris, Corinn Waltrip and Trishi Williams. With the three leading scorers from last season gone, juniors Katie Colard and Sydney Donaldson will return as WWU's top scoring options.
CONTINUING CONFERENCE DOMINANCE
WWU has a combined 62-8 record against Great Northwest Athletic Confernce opponents since the 2009-10 season. Over that span, the Vikings have finished as regular-season champions twice, and second the other two years.
WHO STEPS UP TO FILL BERNSEN'S ROLE?
Junior center Kayla Bernsen was lost to an ACL tear before the season began, leaving a void in the Vikings' frontcourt. Senior forward Sarah Hill will slide down to play center, but the question remains as to who will play at the power forward position. One of several underclassmen are vying for time for at the position, including freshman forwards Rachel Albert, Tia Briggs and Kiana Gandy.