With a fresh set of players and a new head coach, the women’s basketball team prepares to kick off its season on Saturday Oct. 29 with a home opener against Lourdes University.

Stephanie Miller will take over as the head coach in place of Steve Wiktorowski, who resigned after nine seasons. Miller graduated from Michigan State University where she studied secondary education with a focus in biology and English. She taught high school biology, anatomy and literature classes while coaching girls’ varsity basketball, girls’ softball and many successful Amateur Athletic Union basketball teams.

With only three seniors leading the team and a plethora of players with experience as guards, Miller hopes to offset the team’s weaknesses with their strengths.

“We’ve got several strengths this year and one of them is shooting ability,” Miller said. “We have a lot of kids who can shoot the basketball. I have three-point shooters from all across the board from my point guard to my center. We run more of an inverted offense where we can utilize all those shooters and I think we can use that to our advantage.”

She continued, “Another strength of ours is that we are very tenacious. We have a number of kids who really will continue to be persistent and get after it. They play hard and have some really good aggressive-style play, which I like.

“Another strength I would point out is our defensive ability, especially on the open court. We have a lot of quick players with quick hands so we can wreak havoc on a press or on a three-quarter-court type of defensive transition. I look forward to using some of that speed to our advantage both on offense and defensively,” Miller said.

“A couple weaknesses we have,” Miller admitted, “are generated from physical size. We literally have 12 players and 10 are guards. Two of those forwards could play wing. We just don’t have a lot of forward play so we have to transition some players into forward-style players—so that puts us a little bit behind in that area. We have to fight that with tenacious play and the speed to sort of counteract the lack of size.”

Promising players who are returning this year include senior guards Kaylee Hilliker and Kari Heusinkveld as well as junior guard Jenna Rusmisel. Third-year Samantha Hawk will assume the position of the team’s center. Miller says that with Hawk’s technical leadership, Hilliker’s vocal direction on the court and Rusmisel’s calm, collective attitude, the Leafs show potential for the upcoming year.

“We’ve lost a lot of impact players in terms of stats,” Miller said. “It’s difficult to replace the rebounds and scoring we lost. We had a lot of All-Conference-level players in the seniors that left, so the new players coming in are relatively untested—which is a little nerve-racking, but it’s very wide-open for the kids as a competition to see who’s going to step it up this year. A lot of times when you have players who are all role players without any obvious stand outs, the best thing you can do is find the right people to fit the right roles and then mesh them together properly.

But Miller is confident about the team’s chances. “With a really up-tempo style and a lot of aggressiveness and intensity, we plan on playing the underdog roll a lot this year; that’s actually really exciting for us because we plan on going in and spoiling some people’s party. We’re not expected in a lot of people’s minds to be up here so it’s easy for us to just give everything we have and have a common goal of hard work, positive energy and attitude.”

The Leafs will be in unknown territory as they enter Saturday’s home opener against Lourdes University. This is the Gray Wolves’ first year with a women’s basketball program. Although Miller is unable to prepare her team for their opponents like she usually does, she will use this time to teach the new plays and systems implemented with her arrival to the team.

“My focus is more on trying to get us to work on our system a little bit better for this home opener because the first game is rough anyways with jitters,” Miller said. “There’s all kinds of stuff going on and we need to focus on us.”

The game begins at 1 p.m. at the Gunden Gymnasium.