ST. GEORGE — Dixie States women’s and men’s basketball teams kicked off the year with a scrimmage against themselves at Burns Arena. While the two teams did scrimmage themselves for 10 minutes each, there was also a three-point shooting contest and a dunk contest.
Trailblazers women’s basketball
The Dixie State women’s team has two returning starters, as well as six total returners from last season. The Trailblazers finished 15-11 overall and 11-11 in their first season in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, which was just two wins shy of making the conference tournament.
Fans can expect to see a different style of play out of the Trailblazers this season. Head coach JD Gustin was quick to talk about defense when discussing his team’s identity. Last year the Trailblazers tried to speed teams up on defense, putting on full-court pressure, but this season they’ll be focused on their defense in the half-court. In doing so, they won’t be losing any tempo in terms of offense. They still plan on pushing the ball up the court in transition and keeping a fast pace.
“We’re going to try and guard in the half-court,” Gustin said. “We’re going to be a significantly better defensive team, way more emphasis on that end, and then we’re going to still try and get out offensively and play fast that way. We don’t want it to be a real slow game.”
Gustin also spoke of his team’s maturity and experience. With six returners and a group of experienced transfers mixed in with some younger players, that experience will come in handy throughout the season.
“We have some older kids,” Gustin said. “It’s a newer team, but it’s more experienced and older and mature than we’ve ever had here at Dixie.”
Gustin also pointed out that the upcoming move to the Western Athletic Conference and Division I, the recruitment process was much different. They had a much easier time getting Division I talent to come to Dixie State with the impending move up. The Trailblazers also focused their efforts within Utah, getting four freshmen, all from Utah, with 10 of their 14 players coming from in-state as well.
“Our freshman that we have, they’re all Division I players so to have them play a year at D2 and kind of get their feet wet,” Gustin said. “We’re just lucky that they’re Division I talented kids we have now.”
Gustin pointed out Chesney Stephens, a Panguitch native and transfer, as the biggest surprise. She played on a Florida Southern team that made it to the Division II Sweet 16 last season and brings in a solid addition for the Trailblazers as a center.
Ali Franks has also caught Gustin’s eye as he spoke about her improvement from last season. As the returning leading scorer from last season, Franks will be a big part of the Trailblazers this season.
Although the team is ranked ninth in the preseason RMAC poll, Gustin has set a high bar for his team. He believes they are experienced and talented enough to win the conference title this year.
“We want to win the league, real simple, and we’re going to do everything we can,” Gusting said. “We feel like we’re talented enough, and that’s ultimately our goal.”
It was clear that Gustin is focused not only on their last season as a Division II team, but the long term path of the program into the Division I ranks.
The Trailblazers season begins on Friday in Wichita Falls, Texas against University of Texas-Tyler.
Trailblazers men’s basketball
The men’s team, led by Jon Judkins (15 season), was picked to finish second in the RMAC this season. They are coming off of an 18-9 record in their first season in the RMAC, while returning two starters and six-letter winners from that team.
“I think a lot of excitement right now is us making that move to Division I,” Judkins said. “I think around the town, recruiting, everybody knows we’re going that way.”
Judkins was honest in saying that he never could have guessed that Dixie State would be making this jump to Division I and the WAC. He spoke to the difficulty that they faced jumping from the junior college level to the Division II level. They first struggled to schedule teams, but once they joined the PacWest conference, that all changed. Then they moved to the RMAC, and now on to the WAC next season. It was a quick transition as well, moving to Division II in 2006, and only 14 years later on to Division I.
The team has received a lot of fan support over the years, being second in attendance in Division II, and Judkins only sees that getting better with the move up to Division I. The school has the facilities to do so, and the excitement around the program is growing.
With this season being their second, and last in the RMAC, it has been an adjustment coming from a fast-paced, offensively-minded conference like the PacWest. In the RMAC, teams play back-to-back games on Fridays and Saturdays, which is tough on the players. The travel schedule is rough, and the strength of the conference from top to bottom adds to the difficulty of the conference. This was shown when New Mexico Highlands finished seventh in the conference after the regular season and then won the conference tournament championship.
“The RMAC, everybody is pretty dang good,” Judkins said. “You can lose any given night, and then the travel. As far as it is and as cold as it is, but to play the Friday and Saturday back-to-back is brutal. It’s really hard. The RMAC has good coaches, but I think any team can beat anybody on any given night.”
Those doubleheaders will soon be changing as the team moves to the WAC, where games are played on Thursdays and Saturdays instead.
The differences within the team could be seen Monday night during their scrimmage. They’re a little bit thinner, but they have a lot of shooters and play at an extremely fast pace.
“We’re not as big and bulky as we were last year, but we got guys who can really shoot it,” Judkins said. “We’re running a lot more stuff outside, ball screens to handoffs to try and open up the court. That’s, to me, what we have to do as coaches. We have to find out what we have and work with that.”
That fast pace is going to be a key part of the team’s identity this season. It will create a fun style of play for not only the team, but the fans.
“That’s kind of what I think we’re good at,” Judkins said. “Obviously it depends who we’re playing, but right now in the RMAC I think we have a good chance of pushing the ball up and scoring 80 to 90 points a game. It’s going to be a fun game to coach, a fun game to play and watch.”
With regard to their preseason poll ranking, Judkins was pleased with where they were ranked.
“I couldn’t have drawn it up any better, that’s exactly what I wanted,” Judkins said. “They’re respecting you guys, but not enough to give you first place, so let’s go out and get it.”
He named a couple of players that have been playing particularly well, including his returning backcourt in Jack Pagenkopf and Andre Wilson, who have been dealing with some injuries. He mentioned that Hunter Schofield and Cameron Chatwin have been solid in the frontcourt as well.
The Trailblazers are playing a tough non-conference schedule that includes Saint Martin’s, a team that made the sweet 16 last season, and a historically good program in Western Oregon on the road. They are challenging themselves early, which will only help them with their regional and national rankings later in the season. This touch scheduling won’t stop when the Trailblazers leave Division II, it will only continue.
“I like to play the best teams we can,” Judkins said. “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. And that’s why I want to play the best teams we can play. That’s what we’re trying to do now going DI.”
Judkins is looking ahead to the move to Division I, but he is taking it year by year, making sure that their program’s final year in Division II is not wasted.
The Trailblazers start their season on Friday against Texas A&M Commerce at Westminster college. They will return home the following week to play at home against Providence and Saint Martin’s on Nov. 15 and 16.
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