Sophomore-laden T-Birds aim to challenge for Region VI crown

Sophomore-laden T-Birds aim to challenge for Region VI crown

CONCORDIA, Kansas — Tip-off for the 2016-17 season is a week away from the Cloud County Community College women's basketball team, which opens the season at 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 3 at home against Doane College.

The T-Birds are picked to finish seventh in the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference, according to the coaches poll released on Monday. Hutchinson Community College was the preseason favorite.

"If you're picked first, they don't give you a trophy for preseason rankings," jested Cloud County head coach, Brett Erkenbrack, who enters his 28th season at the helm with an overall record of 611-260 (70.2%). "Last year, I don't even know where we were picked, but we finished in a three-way tie for fifth and were one of the last four teams playing in the Region VI. That's what I'm more concerned about—how we finished versus what others think of us in October. I have a good feeling about our team right now."

Cloud County finished 2015-16 with a 23-10 overall record and 13-6 mark in the KJCCC, tied with Butler Community College and Coffeyville Community College, and advanced to the Region VI Tournament semi-finals.

The T-Birds will welcome back four sophomores, including starters Erin Alexander, Chelcie Kizart, and Kaley Broeckelman.

Alexander, a First-Team All-Conference and First-Team All-Region selection a year ago, nearly averaged a double-double as she was second on the team in scoring at 13.9 points per game and averaged a team-high 9.3 rebounds. Defensively, she was a nightmare in the paint for opponents as Alexander was fourth in the country amongst NJCAA DI players in blocked shots (99).

Kizart received Second-Team All-Conference and All-Region Honorable Mention after leading the T-Birds in scoring with 14.8 points per game, while Broeckelman, an All-Conference Honorable Mention and three-point specialist, was third on the team in scoring last season at 12.8 points per game.

The T-Birds' trio highlight an eight-woman sophomore class, which also includes Shannon Owens and forward Amaris Jones, who played in 27 games as a freshman, and three sophomore transfers in Hailey Mayfield, Jenna Clasen and Simone Walker.

Clasen, a transfer from Garden City Community College, averaged 7.3 points per game and shot 37 percent from 3-point distance last season.

Walker comes to Cloud from Hagerstown Community College where she averaged 8.0 points and 3.5 rebounds as a freshman and is described by Erkenbrack as "a dynamite athlete."

Freshmen newcomers expected to challenge for playing time this season include Aleeya Curtis-Evans, point guard Kelsi Mueller, forward Kennedy Gay, guard Alexis Gifford, forward Rebecca LaBerge, and forward Keisha Hamilton, who is steadily recovering from ACL surgery that has sidelined her for 15 months.

The 2016-17 season marks the first time that KJCCC members will play a 26-game conference schedule. The T-Birds will have to be ready for the grueling test right off the bat as four of their first six conference games will be out on the road, including trips to Hutchinson and Seward County.

"Historically, it's been us and those two teams (Hutchinson and Seward County) in the region's final four. For us to play those two early in November, it kind of changes things," Erkenbrack said. "We're used to playing those two teams fairly late in the season. We also play three of our first four conference games out on the road. It's possible, but I hope not probable, that we end up with a couple of losses before Christmas. We'll just have to see how things go."

If Cloud County can whether the early storm in the conference schedule, Erkenback said there are plenty of reasons to be excited about the 2016-17 T-Birds and their chance to be a KJCCC and Region VI threat.

"Offensively, we have more weapons than we've had in recent years. We have more people who can score, which is a good thing for late in the season when games tend to tighten up and slow down a little bit," Erkenbrack said. "I always try to be cautiously optimistic, but I think there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about this year's team. There are a lot of teams in the conference that have a lot of experience. It should make for exciting ballgames throughout the conference season."