Senior leadership crucial for CSU women’s hoops

Sam Lounsberry

Two seniors on Colorado State’s women’s basketball team, guards AJ Newton and Gritt Ryder, appear prepared to shoulder the responsibility of leadership for the Rams in a season for which expectations are high.
Last year, the Rams tore through their regular season, notching 25 wins, 15 in conference, to scoop up the Mountain West Conference regular season crown, but a loss to Fresno State in the championship round of the Mountain West Tournament prevented them from reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002.
Both Newton and Ryder, CSU’s sole seniors this year, started all 33 games in 2013-14 for head coach Ryun Williams. The pair shared the responsibility of handling the ball and bringing it up to start the offense.
That will not be changing this year as Newton and Ryder are two of four starters CSU returned from last season’s Mountain West regular season title run. The two seniors face the challenge of meeting clear expectations to emulate and even surpass last season’s success and earn an NCAA berth.
“I think there is a very high bar set,” Newton said. “It wasn’t set last year but I think it’s for sure set this year.”
“We know we obviously want the NCAA Tournament  that’s what every team wants  but we are just making sure we take the right steps to get there. We want all of that, but we’re taking it in steps, worrying about game to game and week to week,” Newton added.
Ryder and Newton combined for 22.6 points, 6.2 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game in 2013-14. Being the primary ballhandlers for a team with such high hopes puts pressure on the senior duo to continue to do it all.
While Newton scored 20 points in two contests last year and Ryder notched double digits in 20 games, the pair said there is not necessarily an expectation to increase their individual scoring roles, despite the loss of Sam Martin, CSU’s scoring leader last season.
“(Scoring) will be game to game,” Newton stated. “If that’s needed to score that much, I’ll do it, but I don’t think its preplanned that I have to score a certain amount. There are so many scorers on the team  one game Gritt might have 25 and I’ll have two, but my job will be to get her the ball and help put her in the motion. Every game will be different.”
“We share responsibility,” Ryder added. “Whoever has the mismatch brings the ball up.”
Coach Ryun Williams said it is luxurious to have two proven seniors in ball handling positions. According to Williams, the seniors’ leadership stems from their commanding presence on the court.
“Both those kids were very strong leaders for us last year and that hasn’t changed,” Williams confirmed. “They’re not afraid to have a voice. A coach can only say so much. When they’re in between those lines on the court, they have to be an extension of a coaching staff and I trust they are.”
Joining the senior guards as returning starters are sophomores Ellen Nystrom and Elin Gustavsson. Newton is excited to continue building with last year’s teammates and the advantageous cohesion developed by spending a winning season together.
“I think it makes other teams say, ‘Wow, they’re still the same Colorado State, they’re just missing Sam (Martin),” Newton stated.
Despite the implied new responsibilities associated with seniority, the leadership comes from the same actions it did last season, according to Ryder and Williams.
“Last year we were the same people  we went in and practiced as hard as we could and tried to lead by example,” Ryder said. “Of course (now) we have that urgency because we know it’s our last chance, but I think it’s in our personalities to do so.”
“The first thing (to do as leaders) is just to make sure they play well,” Williams agreed. “Putting themselves in the right spots and playing with the right energy becomes contagious.”
Collegian Sports Reporter Sam Lounsberry can be reached at sports@collegian.com and on Twitter @samlounz.