ST. GEORGE — Saturday afternoon, Dixie State finally played its first Division I women’s basketball game. After having three different opening nights canceled, the Trailblazers became an official, competing member of the Western Athletic Conference.
With the men’s season well underway, the women have sat on the sidelines due to positive COVID-19 tests in both their program and their opponents. But when they do hit the court, the expectation is to hit the ground running and be competitive in collegiate basketball’s top level as soon as possible.
“I don’t see much changing, to be honest,” Dixie State head coach J.D. Gustin said of the change to Division I. “The players are a little bit faster, a little bit stronger, a little bit bigger. The coaching is equally as good, in my opinion, in small college as it is to big college. The small college players can shoot it just as well as the big college. Their ball-handling skills are just as good. It’s simply a matter that there’s more good players on a Division I team. You’ll have five, maybe six, good players on a Division II team, and you might have 10 on a Division I team.”
Click here to read the game story as the Trailblazers score their first Division I victory.
Gustin, having coached professional men all the way down to junior high girls, believes in a fundamentals system and that if you can solidify the basics, the rest will come. He’s long used the Princeton-style offensive method, which relies on keeping the ball and players in motion to try to generate a mismatch.
This year, Gustin wants to generate more chances from the wings on offense and be strong on the board for second chances. On defense, which is headed by assistant coach Matt Legerski, they want to emphasize keeping opponents out front and winning on the board there. It may be a lofty goal for a team that readily accepts they’ll be the smaller one on the court more often than not.
Dixie will also have to do that with a mostly new lineup, as it goes through what Gustin compares to starting a fresh new program.
Senior guard Keslee Stevenson is the only player returning that started all 30 games last season and was the Trailblazers’ leading scorer. Gustin expects only more good things to come, and will benefit from the new offensive style and just general improvement.
“[She’s] the one that’s really going to surprise some people,” He said. “She’s put on some muscle and just some strength and now her confidence. Her mindset is really changed. She is good. She’s way better than I’ve ever seen her. A lot of it has a lot to do with this new offense. It puts her in a better position to make plays as opposed to being a role player.”
A pair of other guards, junior London Pavlica and Sophomore Breaunna Gillen, are the only returning players with starts in 2019-20.
Pavlica was in the starting five 22 times and Gillen had six starts. Emily Isaacson, who has dealt with some injuries, is another returning key player who is tentatively slotted at the No. 4 spot in the starting lineup. Gustin said she has the versatility to fight in the post and also the shooting ability to be a threat from the arc.
They’re hoping to surround those starters with an influx of talent brought on by Division I recruiting. They have five Division I transfers, who are all applying for eligibility waivers for the season. It is, as of now, unknown who and how many will be available this season. But with the NCAA granting an extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic, getting their contributions this season is just icing on the cake anyway.
The highlight of the transfers is guard Shanaijah Davison, who was an All-Big West honorable mention twice for Long Beach State, recording 1,198 points. She was the 49ers’ leading scorer two seasons in a row.
“She’s a league MVP candidate in my opinion,” Gustin said. “We’ve never seen anything like her at Dixie State.”
Gustin said that they’re waiting on waiver approval, and if she gets rejected they’ll see her next year. In the meantime, he thinks his team is ready to go for when the call to play finally comes.
That chance came Saturday, as they hosted Park University out of the California Pacific Conference and routed the Buccaneers, 81-52.
After having to cancel three home games at the beginning of the season, including one against BYU, and a fourth on the road Jan. 2 against Ottawa, the Trailblazers will have only four nonconference games before beginning WAC play, as it’s currently scheduled.
Their only road contest will be a trip up to Cedar City and Southern Utah on Dec. 21.
Conference play is slated to begin Jan. 8 at New Mexico State. The first WAC home game is Jan. 15 against UT Rio Grande Valley.
DSU was selected to finish No. 8 in both preseason polls, ahead of only Chicago State. But Gustin has higher hopes than that as the season gets underway.
“Any coach is fooling themselves if they say Ws aren’t a part of the equation, because they are,” he said. “I think there’s Ws in the WAC. Can we get them? I don’t know, but they’re out there.”
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