Coming off a near dream season in 2007-2008, the St. Mary’s University Rattlers have a big challenge ahead of them this season: try to surpass their success of last season. That won’t be an easy task considering the Rattlers won the Heartland Conference regular season and postseason tournament titles, won a school-record 24 straight games and advanced to the NCAA South Central Region Tournament. With four of five starters back from that team, the pressure to not just equal the success of last season, but surpass it, is high. Head coach Jason Martens welcomes the expectations.
“If there is any pressure, it’s good pressure,” Martens said. “We want to advance further than we did last year. We got a taste of success last season; we competed at that higher level. Last year they showed that they belonged there and they should get there again this year.”
“Now we’re the hunted instead of the hunters. It’s a different feeling than we’ve had. We have to remember that we’re going to get everyone’s best shot.”
The Rattlers return 2008 Heartland Conference Player of the Year Natalie Gamez (Sr., San Antonio), 2008 Heartland Conference Freshman of the Year Mallory Moeller (So., Seguin), as well as starters Ashton Benford (Sr., Waxahachie), Chastity Noble (Jr., El Paso) and Jessie Smith (Sr., Boerne) for the 2008-09 season.
With four other players returning from the 2007-2008 team, along with a strong class of four newcomers, the Rattlers look to be set for a run at a second straight Heartland Conference Championship.
With Noble and Rachel Jones (Sr., Little Rock, Ark.) returning for this season, the point guard position is in good shape. The pair split time at the point in 2007-08, combining to average 15.1 points, 7.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.8 steals per game.
Jones has the athletic ability to be one of the most exciting players in the Heartland Conference, as she showed in the NCAA South Central Region Tournament opener against the University of Central Oklahoma, where she scored 20 points. Jones reached double figures in scoring 12 times in her first season as a Rattler and ranked second on the team in scoring, third in rebounding and led the team in assists.
Noble worked her way into the starting lineup in just her second season with the team in 2007-08 and responded by averaging the second most minutes played on the squad. Her long-range shooting was an important weapon for the Rattlers as she was third on the team in three-pointers per game and three-point field goal percentage. She scored in double figures five times last season, including a season-high 15 points against Oklahoma Panhandle State University in the first round of the Heartland Conference Tournament.
“We should be deep at the point guard spot with Chastity and Rachel back,” Martens said. “I’m excited about seeing what they can do for us with a year playing together.”
Adding depth to the position this year is freshman Deanne Patterson (Fr., Converse). Patterson was a three-time all-district honoree at Roosevelt High School and will compete for playing time with Noble and Jones this season.
Senior Jessie Smith leads the Rattlers at the shooting guard spot, though the Rattlers are well stocked, thanks to a number of players who can play multiple positions. Both Jones and Noble played at the two-guard last year at times, though Smith started 20 of the 30 games last season for the Rattlers. Smith was another long-range threat for the Rattlers, hitting on 37.1 percent of her shots from beyond the arc. Her tenacious defense was also a strength for the Rattlers last season.
The small forward position is another spot where the Rattlers look to be loaded. Of course any position where you have the Heartland Conference Player of the Year returning is likely to be a position of strength. Gamez has earned All-Heartland honors each of the last two years, but last year was her true breakout season leading the Rattlers with 16.0 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, while finishing second on the squad in assists and free throw percentage.
Farren Fox (Jr., Marble Falls) had a solid first season in 2007-2008 for the Rattlers and will be one of the first players off the bench for the Rattlers again this year. She averaged 6.5 points and 3.7 rebounds per game, despite starting in just four games last year. Jennie Endres (Jr., Athens) is entering her third season on the team and will add depth to the position.
Joining the Rattlers this season is freshman Amber Sophus (Fr., Houston). Sophus earned all-state honors playing for St. Pius X High School in Houston.
“Having Natalie back gives us an established starter at the wing, but I’m also excited about the players that we signed,” Martens said. “With Farren and Jennie also back, depth will be a big advantage for us.”
Though the Rattlers do not have what would be considered a “true” center, the post position is far from an area of weakness for St. Mary’s. With veterans Benford, Moeller and Stephanie Gurnell (Sr., Katy) leading the way, the Rattlers have the muscle down low to battle with anyone.
Benford is back for her fourth and final year at St. Mary’s. After earning All-Heartland Conference honors as a sophomore two years ago, injuries limited her for much of the season last year. However, she still averaged 8.3 points and 5.3 rebounds per game in 18 starts. Moeller made her mark on the Heartland Conference last season, earning Freshman of the Year honors after averaging 8.1 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. She also led the team, hitting on 47.4 percent of her shots from the field. Gurnell saw action in all 30 games last season and will again be an important reserve for the Rattlers.
“The post position was strong for us last year and we think that it should be again this year,” Martens said.
The lone newcomer to the post is Lesleigh Phillips (Fr., San Antonio), who comes to St. Mary’s from nearby Stevens High School. She was all-district pick at SHS and also a member of the track and field team.
Despite their 24-game win streak last season, the Rattlers had to sweat out the latter part of the season. They were hoping they would move up enough in the NCAA South Central Region rankings to qualify for the NCAA Tournament because the Heartland Conference did not have an automatic berth. This season the Rattlers will play four teams who advanced to the NCAA Field of 64 in 2007-2008.
They will start the season by facing NCAA South Central Region participant Angelo State University on Nov. 15 in the Incarnate Word Tournament. They will continue to face a total of five Lone Star Conference schools over their first six games, including traditional powers Northeastern State University, Southeastern Oklahoma State University, Texas A&M University-Commerce and Tarleton State University. The Rattlers will host another NCAA Tournament team, Southwest Baptist University, on Nov. 29 at Bill Greehey Arena. After that they will hit the road for a pair of tournaments, including the University of California-San Diego Classic, which features two NCAA Tournament opponents for the Rattlers to face: UC-San Diego and Cal-State University San Bernardino.
“Last year the biggest knock on us was our schedule,” Martens said. “Hopefully with this schedule that is taken care of. It should challenge us and prepare us for later in the season.”
Last season the Rattlers rolled through the Heartland Conference, setting a school record with a perfect 14-0 slate. With four of five starters back from that team, you would think that a repeat performance is in order. Ask Martens and you would get a very different answer.
“I think that you will definitely see an improvement in our league this season,” said Martens. “All the teams have their best players back. I think that it will really be a battle.”
The University of the Incarnate Word, who finished second to the Rattlers in the regular season, should again challenge the St. Mary’s for the top spot in the Heartland. St. Edward’s returns three starters and will again likely be a team to contend with. Oklahoma Panhandle State finished fourth in the league last year and returns its top players for 2008-2009. Texas A&M International University, Newman University, Lincoln University and the University of Texas of the Permian Basin all have strong cores of players back for this season, meaning that the Rattlers will have to battle all season long if they hope to defend their title.