Key departures leave Fennelly and the Cyclones at crossroads

Iowa State senior Seanna Johnson drives to the hoop during their game against Texas on Jan. 1. The Longhorns would go on to defeat the Cyclones 75-68. 

Jack Macdonald

When Jadda Buckley and Seanna Johnson played their last game for the Iowa State women’s basketball program it immediately put Bill Fennelly in a confusing situation.

Does the Iowa State coach of 22 years play for the future, or try and send seniors Emily Durr and Claire Ricketts out with a bang?

“We don’t have very many seniors,” Fennelly said. “For us as coaches, you’re coaching a team that in large part, a lot of the kids will be back next year. It’s kind of one of those things that you’re experimenting with a lot of different things.”

On one end, Fennelly brought in one of his most heralded recruiting classes in recent years and on the other, he is heading into the season with one-third of the big three from last season.

The big three consisted of Bridget Carleton, Buckley and Johnson as they accounted for nearly 61 percent of the team’s scoring last year. But, behind them it’s not much more promising for the Cyclones, a team that bowed out to Kansas State in the first round of the Big 12 tournament and then Syracuse in the first round of the NCAA tournament last season.

Following those three, the Cyclones have Meredith Burkhall and Durr who sit as the next best option after averaging 8 and 8.6 points per game, respectively. However, Durr is coming off of offseason Tommy John surgery on her elbow and was only cleared to resume basketball activities roughly three weeks ago.

“Bridget [Carleton] and [Meredith Burkhall],” Fennelly said of the starting lineup. “And then, it’s like the baseball playoffs. To be determined, game time decision or whatever.”

But after Durr and Burkhall is where red flags pop up all over the court. After Heather Bowe graduated and TeeTee Starks left for Arizona, the only other four Cyclones from last year’s roster combined for zero starts and not one averaged higher than eight minutes of playing time.

Even more eye popping though, the average scoring per game for Adriana Camber, Nia Washington, Claire Ricketts and Sofija Zivaljevic averaged just a little over 1.5. Considering the Cyclones averaged 73.8 points per game, good for the 33rd most in the country, that doesn’t boast well for a high-powered offense.

However, like said before, Fennelly has a recruiting class loaded with talent that will make an immediate impact on the court. Of course there is prized recruit Madison Wise, but then there is also Rae Johnson and Kristin Scott. Fennelly also added Bride Kennedy-Hopoate, a junior transfer that calls Australia home.

Kennedy-Hopoate brings something to Ames that the Cyclones haven’t had in a long time: size. The Brisbane native stands at six-feet-four and can score the ball as well. All-Star Girls Report rated her the No. 1 JUCO prospect after averaging 11.9 points and 5.9 rebounds per game at Hutchinson Community College. What’s even more impressive though, she accumulated those stats in an average of 19.1 minutes of playing time.

The size factor is what really intrigues Fennelly, though. The Cyclones haven’t had a player of Kennedy-Hopoate’s size be an impact since Bryanna Fernstrom in 2014-15 and Anna Prins from 2009-13. Fernstrom was a force for the Cyclones before transferring to Minnesota.

“Bride gives us a physical presence that we haven’t had here in forever,” Fennelly said. “I can’t remember the last time, if ever.”

Prins, who towered over the field at 6-foot-7, is one of Iowa State’s most decorated players in recent years. There’s the obvious reason, she was drafted No. 23 overall in the WNBA draft, but she also averaged 12.3 points and 5.3 rebounds per game her senior season. Prins was also the tallest player in Iowa State women’s basketball history.

“I expect a lot from myself,” Kennedy-Hopoate said. “I know we’re a special group and we can do amazing things. I expect from myself to be a leader, to always be up and push myself to be the best I can be for my team.

And on top of Kennedy-Hopoate’s size, the Cyclones also have Burkhall, Ricketts and Scott. All of which add depth in the post, Fennelly said.

The sole fact the Cyclones return Carleton and Durr is one of the main reasons why Fennelly is at a crossroads, but the loaded recruiting class can set up the Cyclones in coming years when the three freshman have acclimated to the college game.

Whatever route the Cyclones take, Fennelly isn’t one to throw in the towel before the season starts and maybe, just maybe the trio of very talented veterans and the trio of very talented freshman, mixed with a few other players will spark the offense and allow them to make the NCAA tournament for the seventh time since 2010.

“I think we can go pretty far,” said Rae Johnson. “We’ve had pretty good team chemistry even though we’re young and it’s early.”