The Jimmies' Emma Stoehr had a lot to wade through last winter competing in arguably the toughest women's basketball conference the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics has to offer.
A constant in a season of change, the sophomore guard was the only player to start all 30 games played by the University of Jamestown, a team that not only had a new head coach but was also searching for identity following the graduation of leaders Bryn Woodside, McKayla Orr and Paige Emmel -- all standout guards.
Holding the basketball for nearly every key situation, Stoehr led the Jimmies in both assists (114) and turnovers (117) for coach Thad Sankey's offense in 2018-19, and as the Jimmies failed to qualify for the national tournament for the first time in seven seasons the unfair pressure of attempting to resemble what had come before had to have weighed heavily on Stoehr's shoulders.
"For sure," admitted Stoehr, who then immediately shifted the conversation back to the present last Saturday at Harold Newman Arena. "But with the depth of our bench we are so versatile now, anybody can play any position."
Stoehr had just turned in an outstanding performance off the bench, leading the Jimmies to an 87-63 preseason exhibition victory over the visiting University of Manitoba Bisons. Stoehr produced a game-high 18 points, going 5 of 7 from the field, 3 of 4 from 3-point range and 5 of 5 at the free-throw line.
It was like a reset button had been pressed. What previously seemed like an overwhelming cloud to perform was lifted -- albeit in the preseason -- and Sankey's first recruiting class was in the sunlight and leaving its fingerprints all over the court. Freshmen Macy Nilsen, a Minnesota Class 4A all-state honorable mention honoree from Edina, and Hannah DeMars, a Minnesota Class 3A all-state performer from Grand Rapids, cracked the starting lineup alongside seniors Paige Schmidt and Olivia Anderson and sophomore Noelle Josephson.
Kia Tower, a 5-foot-6 freshman guard from Bigfork, Minnesota, splashed off the bench, burying her first six collegiate field goal attempts and finishing just behind Stoehr with 16 points. The last time Stoehr, now a junior, came off the bench was when the Jimmies were playing the defending national champion Concordia Bulldogs in the 2018 NAIA Division II national tournament quarterfinals in Sioux City, Iowa.
"That's great that they're out there and getting it started for us," Stoehr said of UJ's freshmen. "Obviously, nerves were high for everyone this first game, so I was coming off the bench super excited to be in and ready to hit some shots.
"We have well-rounded players," Stoehr added. "When we went into a five-guard lineup (Saturday) we had someone playing a 5 that's normally a 2."
Sankey's freshmen class includes six former high school all-staters. Players that the coach said have already shown growth from last summer to now.
Along with DeMars, Nilsen and Tower, UJ's freshmen include Pingree's Amanda Allen, Danah Ocsan (East Bethel, Minnesota), Kayla Buchanan (Wheatland, Wyoming) and Ashlie Collins (Forest Grove, Oregon).
Schmidt (8.7 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 65 3-pointers) and Stoehr (8.6 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 54 3-pointers) are Jamestown's top returning scorers. Josephson (7.2 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 53 assists, 52 steals), junior Mackensi Higlin (5.4 ppg, 2.9 rpg), Anderson (3.7 ppg, 2 rpg), sophomore Grace Benz (3.4 ppg, 1.9 rpg), Courtney Mosloski (3.2 ppg, 1.7 rpg) and Correy Hickman (1.8 ppg, 1.5 rpg) will also be relied on heavily this winter.
"We've got our returners that work extremely hard and they really set the tone this summer," Sankey said. "The young players on our varsity came this summer and they saw how hard are returners worked.
"Some of our girls had awesome games (Saturday), but so much of it is what we did three months ago."
"We kinda built that foundation of trust between each other and the girls that did come in and made our varsity team ... we all bought into the hard work preseason was," Stoehr said. "Everybody knew that is was gonna take hard work to get spots, because there was a ton of competition for spots."
Competition that should make the Jimmies better. UJ opens the regular season this Saturday (Oct. 26) playing at Dakota State in Madison, South Dakota.
Jamestown missed qualifying for last season's Great Plains Athletic Conference tournament, competing to an 8-14 record in the 12-team conference. The GPAC's Concordia (No. 1), Dordt (No. 5), Dakota Wesleyan (No. 7), Northwestern (No. 11), Hastings (No. 16) and Morningside (No. 19) are all ranked in the NAIA top 25 preseason coaches' poll.
"I'm just glad we have the depth this year on our bench because, honestly, it's so fun getting up in transition and pressing," Stoehr said. "It's fun to play and exciting for everybody. Even cheering from the bench, it’s just a rush for the rest of us, too."