With the calendar edging closer to June, South Arkansas College’s women’s basketball team is in the midst of their offseason workouts.
SouthArk coach Nate Evans said the Stars took some time off after the season concluded to recharge and begin working toward the 2023-24 season.
Evans himself was rather busy putting the final touches on his recruiting class.
“We gave the girls a few weeks off in March just to get their minds off of the season and let their bodies have a much-needed break,” Evans said. “For me, it was a good time to evaluate the season as a whole and gave me the chance to attend our signees’ signing days, which is always a special time.”
Since returning, the Stars have been working hard both in the weight room and on the court.
“The last two months, we’ve been lifting three days a week and seeing big progress,” Evans said. “On average, our girls improved their one-rep back squat by 46 pounds, our one-rep bench press improved on average by 32 pounds and our 50-yard sprint times went down an average of two seconds. We do basketball skills work twice a week. Our girls have become stronger, faster and better basketball players.”
And while SouthArk has certainly been hard at work with their offseason, they have also played the role of host for local students.
“We got to spend a day hosting both Hugh Goodwin and Yocum students on two different occasions, which was a great time,” Evans said. “Everyone involved in the program is excited for next season. We took our lumps this first year, but we know what it’s going to take for us to succeed. I encourage everyone to be on the lookout for SouthArk women’s basketball.”
Regardless of sport, coaches don’t tend to reflect on seasons with losing records with much in the way of being positive.
Yet for Evans, his first season at the helm of the program would be a forgettable one considering the Stars won only two games, but the fact that SouthArk finished the season was an accomplishment itself.
Over the break for the holidays, several players elected to leave the team, which left the Stars with a very limited roster.
SouthArk decided to play out their conference schedule, but due to low numbers, there were games where the Stars would finish with three players on the floor like in hockey when a team has a 5-on-3 power play due to multiple players serving penalties.
“This spring semester kind of came out of nowhere, and before we knew it, we just had to make a decision,” Evans said. “A lot of it was a blur. There were games that we would have to finish with three. We’d have girls foul out, some were sick, some were hurt. I remember calling out in timeouts that we were just going to run a 1-2 zone, which was interesting.
“It really tested me as a man, as a coach and as a leader because these kids had to go through some really tough adversity that not too many people get to face as a college athlete, playing 40 minutes a game and having no one to look to for an excuse. The same goes for me. They were looking at me, so my body language had to be positive. It was definitely a test for me, but this spring made me such a better coach, it made me stronger minded, it really made me put things into perspective with how lucky we were to finish that year out. It was tough calling a 1-2 zone. We saw some interesting things from an X’s and O’s perspective, but we got through it. I was proud of them.”
Evans said he got plenty of support from coaches from around the league.
“It was great,” Evans said. “It really meant a lot to hear all of these coaches and officials after the game stopping me before we left to say how impressed they were with their maturity and their demeanor and our gut to keep going and to keep fighting. I think every single game I had multiple officials and opposing fans that would come up to me and really commend us for doing what we were doing.
“The coaches obviously didn’t go easy on us, I wouldn’t expect them to, but in the postgame line, they would just say to keep fighting and we’ll get through it. A lot of our coaches have been there and done that, seen it all, so it was nice to have a few positive voices in my ear to keep us on the right track.”
Evans said he had to quickly adapt to the situation his team was in.
“One of the biggest things I learned was being able to adapt,” Evans said. “It was completely out of the ordinary what we went through. It wasn’t expected. I tell my kids all the time that everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth, and that’s really how I felt like the spring semester was.
“It jumped up on us, there was nothing we could do. It was one of those practice what you preach moments that I really needed because before then, I had been doing a lot of preaching to the girls, and this gave me a perfect opportunity to show them an example. It really put me in a good spot to lead. When things aren’t going my way, they know I want to win just as bad as they do if not more, so for me to stay positive and for me to adapt, we had to adapt in practice. We did a lot of three-on-three. There were certain drills that we did every day in the fall that we couldn’t touch in the spring because of numbers. It really made me adapt my coaching philosophy and the way I do things. I’m so glad it happened. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
And the Stars were rewarded by winning their final home game of the season, a 69-62 overtime triumph over National Park.
Kylee Portilloz had a monster game with 27 points and 19 rebounds, while Trinity Kussmaul had a double-double of her own with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Kassidy McJunkins had 17 points and Kaitlyn Lee finished with 11 points.
Evans said after the season was over, the team took a break and returned for exit interviews.
The responses he got from the team on how the season unfolded surprised him.
“As soon as our season ended, we took a week off,” Evans said. “I didn’t have any contact with the kids. I said, ‘Don’t touch a basketball. Just mentally refresh.’ Two weeks after our season ended, I brought them all in individually for an exit interview, and the first question I asked every player was rank this season on a scale of one to 10 with one being the worst and 10 being the best. None of them ranked this season lower than a seven, which blew my mind. I said. ‘OK, why was it not a one?’ They all had positive feedback on it.
“They said, ‘Well, I got to play every minute of every game.’ We got to grow closer as a team. I feel like I know these girls more now than ever. We got to shock the world and win a conference game with just six girls, the first home conference win in program history, so I was really impressed with their maturity and kind of puzzled that they were so positive about it.
“But everybody was positive about it. Of course, they said they wanted to win more games, but that had that same mentality that they wouldn’t trade it for the world. They got to play. They got to see what they need to get better at individually. They were all positive about it. They can’t wait for next year.”