Lady Rustlers look ahead after rough seasonMar 17, 2017 By Scott Akanewich, Sports Editor
Atajma Criss-Felton and Olivia Thompson were named co-most valuable players for Central Wyoming College's women's basketball squad.
Central Wyoming College's women's basketball squad endured a rugged campaign, but there were bright spots to go with the bumps in the road.
Following a season with saw head coach Ken Swartz's club post a 5-24 record, the veteran bench boss can look back on the concluded journey and appreciate the good which came from it, despite the difficulties which presented themselves along the way.
Swartz was hired on an interim basis, coming out of retirement after a long and storied career as a coach across Wyoming in both the high school and college ranks.
Included on his considerable resume was taking over a moribund Western Wyoming Community College program, which went 0-30 his first season in charge before building the Lady Mustangs into a perennial Region IX powerhouse within only a few years.
Now, that was some serious work.
How did this season stack up against that or any other year over the course of his five-decade run on the sidelines?
"It was the most challenging season of my career," said Swartz. "However, I can honestly say it was an absolute pleasure working with this great group of young ladies."
According to Swartz, though, initially it wasn't exactly smooth sailing for the good ship Lady Rustler, as coach and players went through an adjustment period.
"It definitely took a little time to understand one another," said Swartz. "In fact, it was a struggle to begin with."
Certainly nothing egregious, simply small things which make the difference between a well-drilled, disciplined squad and a band individuals doing their own respective things, he said.
"Stuff like being on time and bringing a pen to team meetings to take notes," said Swartz. "But, there was no off-court nonsense."
Of course, that didn't mean there wasn't a price to be paid for transgressions, in this case, in the form of running, running and more running.
"For a while, we had the best cross country team around," he said with a laugh. "But, my approach has proven to be successful over the years."
Central began its season with five consecutive defeats, before finally breaking through into the win column with a 64-49 home victory against Laramie County Community College on Nov. 15.
In that contest, Amanda Mitchell led the Lady Rustlers with 18 points and nine rebounds, while eventual leading scorer Atajma Criss-Felton added 15 points, along with 11 from Kyla Paulus on the evening.
Central would drop another two games after that, including a 75-73 rematch against Laramie at a tournament in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, before proper tonic came in the form of a pair of victories against all-star squads from Utah and Wyoming, leaving them at 3-7 overall.
Next, it was time to enter the gauntlet of Region IX North conference play, directly into the teeth of the schedule, where the season would be made or broken.
First up was a narrow 66-60 home loss to Eastern Wyoming Community College at the Rustlers' home tournament, in which Loveeda White led Central with 15 points, in what was a breakout season for the former Lady Chief of Wyoming Indian. Cross-Felton had 14, and Paulus scored 10 points and ripped down 10 rebounds.
The following day brought another defeat to eventual Region IX champion Western Nebraska Community College by an 86-62 scoreline.
Alas, the Lady Rustlers would only taste the fruits of victory on two more occasions the rest of the year, sweeping the season series against Little Big Horn College, including a 101-60 home win, in which White hit for a game-high 23 points, followed by a 99-57 road victory, with White again the star, posting a career-high 24 points.
As the losses began to pile up, it became more and more difficult for Swartz as a coach, he said.
"The toughest thing for me was to come in on a Monday after a loss and facing the girls after they had done everything we asked of them, but to no avail," said Swartz. "I really felt sorry for the players."
However, when it certainly would have been very easy for his charges to simply go through the motions and finish out the schedule, an inspiring thing happened, he said.
"Our players always did exactly what we asked of them," said Swartz. "Also, they understood exactly what we had -- that most of the time, were were simply out-gunned and out-manned, and in order to give ourselves a chance to win, we had to play extremely well in all areas and they always bought into it."
Criss-Felton ended her Central career leading the Lady Rustlers in scoring at 15.6 points per game from her point guard position, while also compiling a team-leading 60 assists.
Olivia Thompson pulled down 225 rebounds on the season, for an average of 7.6 per game.
For their efforts, Criss-Felton, who made the all-Region IX roster and Thompson, who was named to the Region IX all-defensive squad, were named Central's co-most valuable players.
White and former Riverton Lady Wolverine Sierra Hernandez were honored as the Lady Rustlers' most improved players, and Jessie Underberg, who missed most of the season with a hip injury, but remained an integral part of the team, was bestowed with the most inspirational player honor.
Freshmen Bailey Forney, Myriah Fauber and Mitchell added grit and toughness, while sophomore Alexis Pickerd provided a powerful presence under the basket at both ends of the court.
In February, Swartz removed his interim status by deciding to return for next season, and already he has begun to reload for next season with new recruits streaming in to replace those who are moving on.
"Next year, we're going to have a great foundation," said Swartz. "We'll have 10 or 11 freshman and have the kind of team which will be able to press and run and be in your face for 40 minutes, getting open quickly and taking the first open shot we have."
Sounds exciting, if not as challenging.