Thursday night marked the end of a season to remember for Colorado State’s women’s hoops program. It was one defined by a little bit of everything: perseverance through injuries, getting revenge, a regular season Mountain West championship, two disappointing postseason upsets and the ends of the careers of two guards that formed a historic duo.
To start, it’s obvious the Rams’ postseason run stopped much more quickly than head coach Ryun Williams and his team would have liked when they fell to Northern Colorado Thursday night in the first round of the WNIT. From the beginning of the season, the Rams’ stated goal was to manage an NCAA Tournament berth after missing out on a chance at a national title run last year due to being upset in the final of the Mountain West Tournament by Fresno State. Though CSU captured the regular season conference title last season, the MW gets only one bid to the Big Dance – the automatic one for the tournament champion.
But last season was still very much a success, as Williams brought the first conference title since 2002 in just his second year in Fort Collins, despite his team being predicted to finish near the bottom of the MW.
This season, senior veterans AJ Newton and Gritt Ryder knew there were high expectations. They knew that not only would they have to fight through the regular season for a second-consecutive conference title as the favorites to win it, but that the Mountain West Tournament had to be won for a precious NCAA Tournament berth.
In the first regard, the Rams succeeded tremendously.
But they hit some bumps in the road on the way to their second-consecutive MW title.
After blasting through its non-conference schedule with notable road victories over TCU and Drake to head into MW play with an 8-3 record, CSU began conference play without two of its key players.
Newton missed 11 games recovering from a knee surgery in which she had a piece of bone removed, and Victoria Wells had concussion-like symptoms that kept her out for seven games.
Without floor general Newton and lockdown defender Wells, the Rams dropped their conference opener at Boise State.
But that would be the last time they put a tally in the loss column for seven consecutive games.
CSU escaped with a win in a scrappy game against New Mexico, and then Newton returned for conference game No. 3 against Wyoming. With Newton back, the Rams started piecing together what looked like might turn out as a picture-perfect season. Ryder and Newton emerged as the season’s leading scorers at 10.7 and 9.8 points per game, respectively, and led the Rams on a seven-game win streak that was capped off with a revenge-win over Boise State in Moby Arena. But they had to wait for revenge over Fresno State for the previous season’s MW Tournament, as they fell on the road to the Bulldogs their next game.
That revenge was finally had when the Bulldogs came to Moby and lost to the Rams, who carved the path to their regular season title with the victory.
When CSU clinched the MW title outright with its win over Utah State in the regular season finale, Ryder and Newton thought they had played their last game in Moby Arena. The duo’s solid decision-making while sharing point guard responsibilities had turned CSU’s program around in two years as they contributed to a total of 48 wins after the program had posted double-digits in the loss column each of the nine seasons before their arrival.
“These kids wanted to send Gritt and AJ out with a victory, they were going to do whatever they possibly could to do that,” Williams said.
But the pair would return to Moby. A devastating upset by San Jose State in the quarterfinal of the MW Tournament forced the Rams to settle for the WNIT, which they hosted the first round of, unexpectedly missing out on the NCAA Tournament again.
There was a bright side of that tournament loss in Las Vegas, though: Ellen Nystrom. The sophomore forward led with 13 points and a MW Tournament record 20 rebounds. With the Swede in a CSU uniform for two more years, Williams can surely be excited.
“I mean, extremely competitive young lady,” he said. “She’s I think the best defensive rebounder I’ve ever coached.”
Though the season ended on the sour note of an upset in the WNIT against Northern Colorado, it was still outstanding, according to Williams, despite his team’s disappointment at not reaching the NCAA.
“Yeah, this is not what we expected, what’s done is done,” Nystrom said after the SJSU loss.
But Williams will remember the persistence shown by this group that brought back-to-back league titles, not that they narrowly missed the NCAA Tourney.
“Yeah, you’re that consistent, you win the league title two years in a row,” Williams said following the MW Tournament loss. “That’s a 12-week grind … Today we weren’t the best team, but the last two years we’ve been the best team in our league.”
With the leadership of Ryder and Newton leaving, CSU will look to returning starters Nystrom, Jamie Patrick and Elin Gustavsson next year to continue regular season success while trying to deepen CSU’s postseason run. Also among key returners are Keyora Wharry, Alana Arias and Hanne Mestdagh.
Collegian Sports Reporter Sam Lounsberry can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @samlounz.