BY JEREMY HOECK
AMES, Iowa — It wasn’t long after the University of South Dakota women walked off the Hilton Coliseum court Saturday that talk of next year began.
What about it, Coyotes?
“It was a good experience to play against the best,” said sophomore Tia Hemiller after an 81-62 loss to Stanford in Saturday’s NCAA Tournament first round game in Ames, Iowa.
“We learned a lot. We have a goal set for next year, and we can always set a goal to improve.”
The Coyotes, 19-14 this season, were understandably anxious about the topic of the 2014-15 season. They graduate just one player — Polly Harrington — and will return four starters and all their reserves from a team that qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the first time.
So yes, there is plenty to look forward to after Saturday’s loss.
“Just like last year, we lost in the championship game, and this year we didn’t want to feel that way again,” junior Nicole Seekamp said. “It makes it a bigger thing next year.
“We just want to get better every year.”
As has been the trend in two seasons under head coach Amy Williams, the Coyotes have gotten progressively better down the stretch.
Last year, USD went 7-2 to close the season — including a narrow loss in the Summit League championship game — and made a run to the semifinals of the Women’s Basketball Invitational. This season, the Coyotes won eight of their last 10 games before the NCAA Tournament.
How has the program continued to evolve?
“I feel good about the run we’ve made. We’re going to always try to continue to raise the bar,” Williams said Saturday. “I’ve mentioned it before with Stanford, that I have so much respect for the sustained success, and that’s what we’re aiming for.”
She paused, then added with a smile, “Being able to do it time after time, and then maybe, maybe I’ll be satisfied.”
On paper, the Coyotes appear ready to make another run next season. USD will returns four starters, Hemiller, Seekamp, Raeshel Contreras (Jr.) and Lisa Loeffler (Jr.).
The Coyotes will also have reserves Margaret McCloud (So.), Kelly Stewart (So.), Taylor Moore (So.), Madeleine White (Fr.), Bridget Arens (Fr.), Jaylah Jackson (Fr.) and Bailey Milne (R-Fr.) back in the fold. Heidi Hoff (So.) and Emily Smith (Fr.) will also return from injury.
Just like a year ago, the Coyotes got a taste of post-season action this season, albeit on a bigger stage. By all accounts, the ESPN2 broadcast on Saturday was filled with compliments for USD and the way the team played against one of the nation’s elite programs.
“We did great this year; this is a big step for our program, so hopefully we can make improvements every year,” Seekamp said.
Among those improvements pointed by Harrington on Saturday included mostly chemistry and unity.
“They just need to keep doing what they’re doing, keep improving every day, keep working hard,” Harrington said. “This year a lot of people didn’t expect us to go this far, we stayed together.
“Just together and believe in each other, and working hard always, I know they can do it.”
On that idea of exceeding expectations, Seekamp made sure to mention that USD would prefer not to be picked third in next season’s Summit League preseason poll.
“Hopefully we don’t get preseason picked so low, but we showed that it obviously doesn’t bother us,” she said, smiling.