Lady Toppers eager to start new season

Freshman guard Kayla Smith (32) heads to the hoop for two of her 17 points during the Lady Toppers’ 108-43 win over Ouachita Baptist University on Nov. 3 at Diddle Arena. Matt Lunsford/HERALD

Evan Heichelbech

While the majority of NCAA women’s basketball teams in the country already have at least one game in the books, WKU has yet to play its first game of the season.

Tonight that will change when the Lady Toppers travel away from Diddle Arena for their first contest.

WKU will travel to Muncie, Indiana, to take on Ball State, and on Nov. 21, No. 16 University of Louisville arrives at Diddle.

“It’s very exciting. I’m just excited for the girls and just to have the opportunity to kick off the new season and just kind of see where we’re at,” Head Coach Michelle Clark-Heard said. “When you get to this level, of course, they would’ve loved to play on opening weekend, but you’re just excited to play.”

Ball State was picked to finish second in the Mid-American Conference and has the MAC Preseason Player of the Year in Nathalie Fontaine.

“It’s going to be an interesting task,” Clark-Heard said of the season opener. “Our whole goal is for us to keep getting better and get ready for conference play.”

Last season, WKU defeated Ball State 84-59 at home while shooting 47.6 percent from behind the arc, and Clark-Heard is hoping to be able to replicate that form this season away from home.

“We shot the ball really, really well here last year. We made 10 threes, and hopefully we can go there and make 10,” Clark-Heard said. “Brady [Sallee] does a great job, and he has his system in place.”

This year’s contest looks different as the both teams are eager to notch their first wins of the season.

“The roles are kind of reversed,” Clark-Heard said, comparing this game to last season’s clash. “They have a lot of veterans coming back, and they’re looking forward to having the opportunity to get their first win.”

The focus for Clark-Heard and her team over the past two weeks has been defense.

“They’re a very well-coached team, and they like to move the ball a lot and get the perfect shot,” sophomore forward Ivy Brown said. “They’re not just going to throw up anything. We just have to sit down and play defense on them.”

This will be the first real test for the young WKU team, and it will take a collaborative effort to knock off Ball State or Louisville with all the new faces in the lineup.

“I think it’ll take a total team effort: playing defense, everybody knocking down shots, everybody doing what they need to do to get the win,” Brown said. “The biggest thing will be energy. We haven’t played in two weeks, so I think everybody’s fired up and ready to go.”

No matter the outcome of Thursday’s game, WKU will have to refocus quickly for Louisville just two days later.

“It’s always been on our schedule, so as a coaching staff, we know and we’ve done this before,” Clark-Heard said. “It’s getting the newcomers to understand that that’ll be the task.”

Clark-Heard is hoping the veterans on the team can show the newcomers that competitive mentality when the team plays two games in three days. 

“The veterans understand, and they know that we will have a game plan ready, and they understand and know that throughout these weeks … we’ve been practicing and putting things in that we need to prepare for our quick turnaround,” Clark-Heard said.

Playing against Louisville has special meaning for Clark-Heard, who spent five years coaching under Louisville head coach Jeff Walz.

“I think it’s cool. I’m excited and Jeff does a great job, and they’ll come in here hungry and it’ll be exciting,” Clark-Heard said. “It’ll be fun, and it’s always good to coach against — to me — what’s family.”

Louisville has the No. 2 recruiting class in the nation for this season.

“I think their guards are phenomenal,” Clark-Heard said. “They’re very quick and can score, and I just think they’re very talented. It’ll be really interesting to see which players step up. It’s going to be exciting.”

The Lady Toppers are itching to start the season.

“I hope people come out and watch,” Clark-Heard said. “To be able to have a Top 10 team in the country come into your building, I just hope people come out and support the girls. They deserve it.”