CHICAGO – Entering the 2019-20 season, you could say that a talented quad of seniors has plenty of unfinished business for the University of Chicago women's basketball team.
The Maroons understand though, they'll have to do it one way: together.
"Our No. 1 goal is to be the best team we can be by the end of the season," according to eighth-year head coach Carissa Sain.
With a squad chock-full of experience and talent, UChicago – a winner of 19 games a year ago and ranked No. 18 in this season's first D3hoops.com Preseason Poll – appears it could be primed for big year if all the pieces fall into place.
The senior class of four is a good place to start. The returning all-UAA back court trio of Taylor Lake (first team), Mia Farrell (second team) and Miranda Burt (honorable mention) have started a combined 179 games in three seasons, and the constant of leadership that classmate Nireet Dhillon has been unmatched.
Lake, the squad's returning Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) All-American honorable mention selection, averaged 14.3 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.7 steals per game in 2018-19, including a career-best 30-point performance in a win over Brandeis.
Farrell – a D3Hoops.com Second-Team All-Region selection her sophomore season – returns 12.3 points, 2.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 1.8 steals from last year and joins Miranda Burt in double-figure scoring back. Burt, a former UAA and D3Hoops.com Central Region Rookie of the Year, pumped in 11.1 points, 2.8 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.5 steals for the Maroons in 2018-19.
Sain said leaning on the fourth-years isn't anything new, not for a group that has three-straight NCAA Division III Tournament appearances under its belt.
"Our seniors are our leaders, without question," Sain said. "But relying on them is nothing new: we've expected quite a bit from them since they arrived on campus three years ago.
"They've been shaping this program for four years and that's what is so neat about seniors every year. The team reflects them and this group is no different."
Other key letter winners include 6-foot-1 sophomore Klaire Steffens (26 games, 5.3 points, 4.4 rebounds per game), junior wing Meaghan O'Hara (26 games, 2.7 points, 1.0 rebounds), and sophomore guard Elizabeth Shaw (26 games, three starts). Sain also expects fellow second-year returners Kati Heller, Alina Brennan and Alison Gill to use work done in the offseason to their advantage.
"I'm really excited for our 'bridges'… they clearly had an amazing offseason and have such a strong influence on this team," Sain said. "They're fantastic teammates who love the game and this team and I'm excited for their impact."
How the team finds its identity will certainly be dependent on how 10 returners meld with six newcomers, as the Maroons welcome a big class of first-years.
Mallory Brodnik (6-2 forward from Vienna, Va.), Ashley Gao (5-11 forward from Piedmont, Calif.), Isabella Herrera (5-3 guard from Poughkeepsie, N.Y.), Grace Hynes (5-8 guard from Chicago (Mother McAuley)), Lucy Schmid (6-0 forward from Naperville, Ill.), and Peyton Van Soest (5-10 guard from Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.) join the fold in 2019-20.
"They have been great to have in the gym and are doing a wonderful job of learning and competing," Sain said of the rookie class.
The season starts quickly and with a challenge.
UChicago opens the year at home Sunday, Nov. 10 with a Top-20 matchup with No. 12 Texas-Dallas, a team that went 25-5 a year ago and reached the NCAA Division III Second Round.
The Maroons feature seven home nonleague contests in the months of November and December with Illinois Wesleyan (Nov. 12), Trine (Nov. 22), Kenyon (Nov. 24), Rose-Hulman (Nov. 26), Mount Mary (Dec. 4), Elmhurst (Dec. 7), and Carthage (Dec. 15). Road matchups include at Wisconsin-Platteville (Nov. 16), at Wheaton (Nov. 20), and at North Central (Dec. 18), before the 2020 University Athletic Association home-and-away season starts at rival Washington-St. Louis on Jan. 11.
UChicago, picked to win the UAA in this year's preseason coaches' poll, went 10-4 (tied for second) in league play in 2019, earned an at-large bid before falling to Oglethorpe (Ky.) in the NCAA Division III First Round.
The Maroons have sights set higher by the time this March comes around.
"The goal is to have a strong identity by February 29 and in the process, to have won enough games to be able to take that identity for a spin in March," Sain said.
"…. Let the games begin."