FRANKLIN, Ind. – When the Franklin College women's basketball team steps on the floor for their season opener, they'll be doing so with one of the youngest rosters in recent memory.
After making a run to the semifinals of the 2017 Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference (HCAC) tournament with a veteran-heavy group, this year's installment of the Grizzlies will be carried almost exclusively by its underclassmen.
Franklin graduated its top four scorers from a year ago, but head coach Dana Haggenjos has been encouraged by what she has seen in from a young Franklin squad that will feature 11 freshmen and sophomores on the roster in 2017-18.
"Our practices have been a lot different this year," Haggenjos said. "There's a lot of energy and excitement at practices and that makes for productive days on the court. Everyone wants to step forward and take over in a scoring role or a leadership role. We also have a lot of players that are pretty good defenders and when you mix all of that together, you get a team that's really exciting to be around."
Leading the youth movement are five sophomores that all earned playing time on last year's team. Guards Ashlin Aycock, Taylor Baxter, Krista Sutherland, Erin Bradley and Melissa Beer will all have a chance to earn extended minutes as they get set for their second collegiate campaign. They'll all be pushed by freshmen Katie Cruse, Lindsey Frejie, Maddy Gary, Isabella Ratliff, Bayleigh Walker and sophomore transfer Amanda McKinney.
With so many new bodies in the fold and several young returners trying to carve out larger roles on the team, the Grizzlies have had a determined group of players battling for position on the depth chart since practice started. That competition has been a welcome sight for the coaching staff in the pre-season.
"Trying to blend the returners with the newcomers has been the biggest challenge for us," Haggenjos added. "We only have four upper classmen, but we have a lot of leadership among our freshmen and sophomores. That will help us in the long run, but we're still trying to get everyone into our system and define roles for kids that weren't asked to do as much last year as they will this year."
With so many newcomers and under classmen on the roster, Haggenjos has been able to rely on her four upper classmen to keep the locker room loose and stress-free. Senior Riley Achenbach started all 25 games last year and will be joined by fellow senior Kelsey Smith and juniors Maddie O'Day and Mallory Cast as the program's four longest-tenured players in 2017-18.
The four have been instrumental both on and off the court, providing a calm, veteran voice for their young teammates.
"Our four upperclassmen are all driven and they're all really excited about where the program is headed," Haggenjos continued. "They've been here for a while and they've done a great job of bringing the freshmen along and everyone wants to play for them. Our team chemistry is our biggest asset and they're a big reason why."
Picked to finish fifth in the HCAC by the league's coaches, the Grizzlies are going to be tested early on, starting with a pair of non-conference games against nationally-ranked opponents. The Grizzlies hope their difficult non-conference schedule will have them ready for the rigors of conference play when the calendar turns over to the new year.
"By the time we get to 2018, we're going to have a different team because our young kids are going to get a lot of experience by that point," said Haggenjos. "Our players are confident and they expect to win and that's half the battle for us as coaches. We have a group of players that have bought into what we're trying to accomplish and by the time we hit January, we'll be a veteran team."
The journey begins for the Grizzlies on Tuesday, Nov. 21, when No. 15-ranked DePauw University comes to town for the season-opener. Tipoff from the Spurlock Center is set for 6:00 p.m.