Kansas City Kansas Community College will open the 2018-19 women's basketball season Thursday night as the No. 9 ranked team in Division II of the NJCAA – but only third in the Jayhawk Conference pre-season poll.
For the past five seasons, the Jayhawk has been the nation's toughest NJCAA Division II conference and this season will be no exception with four teams ranked in the pre-season Top 13 – No. 3 Highland, No. 5 Johnson County, No. 9 KCKCC and No. 13 Labette.
The Lady Blue Devils will open against Graceland University JV at 6 p.m. Thursday, play at William Penn JV Sunday and host Washburn JV Monday before hosting St. Louis Community College and North Central Missouri in the annual Keith Lindsey Classic Nov. 9-10.
"It's exciting that the region coaches think so highly of our roster and returners," says Coach Joe McKinstry. "We have a chance to be very good – a high ceiling but a long way to go if we can stay healthy." says Coach Joe McKinstry. However, the Blue Devils will start the season without two key performers, 5-11 sophomore forward Lizzie Stark of Liberty North who is out 8-10 weeks with a knee injury and 5-4 freshman guard Diamond Williams of Detroit, lost for the season with a torn ACL.
"Hopefully Stark will be back in December but definitely by January," says McKinstry. "A very good role player a year ago, her experience will be invaluable when healthy. Williams is the best defensive guard I've ever coached and will be really missed on the defensive end."
The most inexperienced team in the conference with just one sophomore returnee a year ago, the Blue Devils nevertheless finished with a 21-11 record with each of the 11 losses to teams ranked in the Top 20 at one time or another. Now, with most of the starting lineup returning intact and a corps of promising freshmen, it's the Lady Blue Devils who will go into the conference race with the most experience – and hopes for a return to the NJCAA national tournament where they reigned supreme in 2016.
"On paper, we have the most returners and percentage of statistics but we must prove ourselves. We have not beaten the top three teams and proven we are one of the best teams in the conference, finishing fourth in each of the last two years," says McKinstry, who has a gaudy 73-27 record in his three years at KCKCC.
Statistically, the Blue Devils return 66.3 percent of their scoring and 70.3 percent of the rebounding. It is the defense and ball-handling that is of greatest concern. "We're hoping to be much improved on the defensive end," says McKinstry. "We certainly have the capabilities of being one of the best defensive teams in the country. Obviously, our forwards accounted for a huge part of our production last year and we're looking for the same consistency from them this year while having much higher expectations from our guard play."
Heading the list of six veterans is a trio of front-liners who put up some outstanding numbers in 2017-18 – 6-1 Lillie Moore and 5-9 Kisi Young, both of Magnolia, Ark.; and 6-0 Nija Collier of Roseville, Mich. A combo guard and forward, Young led the Blue Devils in scoring (14.6) and the conference in field goal accuracy, a .601 shooting percentage that is No. 2 on the all-time list behind All-American Jurgita Kausaite. She was also third in the conference in rebounding (8.1) and fourth in scoring.
Collier led the conference in rebounding with 8.5 per game, finished fifth in shooting percentage (.532) and 11th in scoring (10.9). Moore, a second team All-Jayhawk selection, was fifth in the conference in scoring (13.6) and rebounds (7.9) and her 20 rebounds against Saint Mary JV are the fourth most for a single game. Stark, meanwhile, was invaluable off the bench. Playing in all 32 games including five starts, she averaged 4.3 points and 3.0 rebounds.
The Blue Devil leaders in assists and three-point shooting return to the backcourt. Caitlyn Stewart, a 5-5 point guard from Wichita Maize, was second in the conference in assists (4.1) while averaging 3.4 points and 3.4 rebounds. Camryn Swanson, a 5-9 guard from Blue Springs, led the Blue Devils in three-point goals, notching 41 of 120 for 34.2 percent along with averaging 5.5 points.
The guard court will get a huge boost by the return of 5-10 Caroline Hoppock of Olathe East. Hoppock started five games last season, averaging 7.4 points and 2.7 rebounds before a concussion sidelined her for the season. "She has a chance to be an outstanding player," says McKinstry.
Newcomers will fill the other spots on the roster including 5-6 sophomore guard Lexy Watts of Olathe North, a transfer from Neosho County where she averaged 4.1 points and 1.9 assists in 26 games. She's joined in the backcourt by sharpshooter 5-5 Brodi Byrd from Truman High School and playmaker 5-9 Lenaejha Evans of Conway, S.C. The lone forward is DeNae Nash, a 6-1 shot blocker from Waterloo East (Iowa).
The Blue Devils will get additional help the second semester from wings 5-10 Kiara Brown of F.L. Schlagle and 5-8 Carson Chandler of Sarcoxie, Mo. A four-time all-conference and defensive player of the year, Brown signed with KCKCC a year ago but missed last season with an extended illness. "A high IQ player who is very hungry to get back on the court," says McKinstry.
While inexperienced, McKinstry hopes to get considerable production from the freshmen. "Byrd is a complete player who can shoot the ball and Evans is very good offensively. Watts is one of the quickest defenders we've had and Nash will give us added size and shot blocking, especially when she gets more rebounding and defensive aggressiveness. When they join us, Brown and Chandler will provide us even more depth."
The added backcourt depth will reduce the work load forced on Caitlyn Stewart at point guard. "She had to play too many minutes last year," said McKinstry, who is again being assisted by Tamika O'Neal, a former NJCAA All-American and KU standout.
This year's conference race may be the most closely contested yet. "Fort Scott will be much better this year and would have been last year had not three starters been lost to injury early in the season," says McKinstry. "Highland, which was 34-1 last year, has solid returners; Labette has a first team All-American who led the conference in scoring; and Johnson County, well Johnson County is Johnson County. Always a top contender." The conference has added a sixth member with Hesston officially joining the league.
Sophomores (from left) Caroline Hoppock, Camryn Swanson, Kisi Young, Caitlyn Stewart, Nija Collier, Lillie Moore and Lizzie Stark provide a wealth of experience for Kansas City Kansas Community College's women's basketball team for 2018-19 although Stark will be sidelined 8-10 weeks with a knee injury. (KCKCC Photo by Alan Hoskins)