ISU women’s basketball reloads with trio of freshmen

Freshman Meredith Burkhall poses at Media Day on Oct. 8, 2015.

Luke Manderfeld

The ISU women’s basketball team isn’t recovering from losing three impactful seniors and point guard Nakiah Bell last season — it’s reloading.

And this time around, the Cyclones may be packing even better talent than before.

At least that’s what ISU coach Bill Fennelly thinks, calling the true freshman trio of Meredith Burkhall, TeeTee Starks and Bridget Carleton the best he’s ever had in his 20 seasons as the head coach of Iowa State.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had [a roster with such talented true freshmen],” Fennelly said. “They’re talented kids. I told them a lot at practice that we’re going to have to coach them hard because they are going to play.”

Just because their age doesn’t match against other players on the team, that doesn’t mean their skill falls short. If a game took place tomorrow, Fennelly would give them all playing time, even if that proposition rattles his nerves a bit. 

“Last night, we were doing a little drill, and [assistant coach Billy Fennelly] walked by me and it was [Carleton, Burkhall, Starks, Claire Rickets and Jadda Buckley playing] and he asked, ‘are you alright?’” Fennelly said. “I’m like, ‘I’m alright right now. We don’t have to play right now.’”

The leader of the freshman group, Carleton, enters with an impressive résumé under her belt, consisting of exceptional play at the high school and international level.

During the summer, Carleton captained the U19 Canadian national team. It wasn’t her first go-round, with stints on the U16, U17 and U18 teams bolstering her experience and preparedness.

The Big 12 Conference is notorious in women’s basketball for being a tough battle game in and game out, but playing against some of the best players in the world at her age, Carleton feels ready to adjust.

“It’s helped a lot,” Carleton said. “I think everyone at [the international] stage are bigger, stronger, faster. They’re the best players in their country. Definitely coming here, again, all the players are older, so they’re bigger, faster, stronger. It’s good and helped me coming here.”

Carleton is also one of the most versatile players on the Cyclones. If a game took place tonight, Carleton would start at power forward while doubling as the backup point guard behind Buckley.

That isn’t to say that the team is forgetting Burkhall and Starks. Both players have the ability to put up points.

Starks brings a winning mentality to the Cyclones, as she is a winner of three state championships with Hopkins High School in Minnesota. Starks will assist Buckley, who is returning from a season-ending injury, at the point guard position.

Burkhall is the lone true forward among the true freshmen. Burkhall, an Urbandale, Iowa, native has the advantage of proximity with her hometown. 

“It’s really nice being only 40 minutes from home,” Burkhall said. “It’s a chance for my family and my friends to see me play, and it’s a chance to represent the state of Iowa and be a hometown girl.”

Burkhall’s role may not be as a starter, but she may come off the bench to assist in the post and create space for her teammates to attack the basket. 

As the only three true freshmen on the team, all three have meshed well. When they first arrived, they lived together, which boosted their cohesiveness and ability to play off each other. 

“We’re really close,” Burkhall said. “We’ve kind of created that bond outside of basketball. We just see each other playing a lot on the court and being together over the next four years.” 

The best part of the trio’s chemistry comes from the view of the coaching staff. All three players buy into the system and are willing to do whatever they need to assist in the team’s success.

“You could not find three better people,” Fennelly said. “I’ve had freshmen that were good players that maybe don’t buy in to what we’re all about and that’s part of dealing with young people. … It’s going to be fun to watch them develop.”

And many of the players are already developed, but their maturation will be tested when they walk onto the hardwood at Hilton Coliseum.

The crowd may be overwhelming for some of the new players, who come from high school games that draw less than 500 fans. At Hilton Coliseum, where crowds can reach more than 1,000 fans, the environment will be completely new.

“It’s going to be a feeling that I’ve never felt before,” Starks said. “I’ve heard about the fans, and I’ve been a fan of the team, but I’ve never played in front of that many people. I’m of course going to be nervous. I think it’ll be great.”