The start of the 2018-19 season has been a grind for both the Dickinson State men's and women's basketball teams.
With many new players on both rosters, a majority of the preseason and non-conference schedule is spent figuring each other out and learning how to mesh and be successful as a unit.
Both teams have shown struggles and glimpses of greatness, but the time has come to take what they've got and get down to business.
On Friday, Jan. 4, the Blue Hawks will travel to Bellevue University (Neb.) to start a stretch of 13 straight North Star Athletic Association games.
"This is it! That's the thing, it's go time," Dickinson State women's head coach Liz Lewis said. "We talked to our players, conference is a whole ߴnother intensity. Preseason games are what you use to prepare for conference, and once you hit conference, it's a whole ߴnother intensity. I hope we're ready for it."
The women's team is heading into conference play with more weapons in stock as key players return to or hit the floor for the first time. Senior point guard Chelsey Borden has been battling a knee injury but could get back to playing as soon as next week.
Senior transfer Anna Jofresa hasn't taken off the sweats and has yet to see game time, but with the turn of the semester, the native of Spain became eligible.
With those additions, the Blue Hawks (7-9, 0-1 NSAA) are hoping to take a new energy into the new year.
"I'm excited that some of our players will be back, so hopefully we'll be full force going into conference," Lewis said. "It's just been, with injuries and Anna ... if we can go in full force into conference with our whole team out on the floor, I think we're gonna do really well."
In the absence of point guards, junior Ashlie Larson stepped in. Despite not playing the position since high school, Larson impressed Lewis and became a leader for the young team.
She averages 11.5 points per game and paces the team with 25 steals over 16 games.
The existing squad has only been improving, especially freshmen posts Caleigh McClenahan and Danielle Wallace.
Wallace, who hails from Havre, Mont., averages just over five points a contest, while McClenahan, of California, puts up 8.3 points per game. She's also collected 89 rebounds over 16 games, the second most on the team.
"They're both very strong post players, there's just the inconsistency of you know, being freshmen," Lewis said. "They're both coming along. ... I don't think they realize the potential they have. I yell at them every day for that, 'You don't realize how much potential you have.' As long as we can keep building their confidence, I think they're going to have a very good career here."
Despite the improved play and compete of the younger players, Lewis said her main concern is the lack of experience going into this stretch as they match up against a solid Bellevue team.
The Bruins are led by redshirt sophomore Elexis Martinez, who is ranked ninth in Div. II with 28 blocks this season. She's also ranked No. 40 in total scoring with 244 points over 16 games.
"Martinez is very aggressive. She's strong, she can rebound, she can score. She's a complete post player, she really is," Lewis said.
'Taking steps, but still not where we want to be'
While the women gain players, the men are headed into the important games down two of their better and lengthier players.
Early in the season, senior Austin Payne broke his finger. As one of just two returners from last year's roster, the loss was a big one for the Blue Hawks. Not long after, senior transfer Ethan Caton suffered a foot injury that has prevented him from playing since the team's North Star opener on Dec. 1, an 80-78 loss to Presentation College (S.D.).
Caton cracked double-digits in three of his eight games, contributing consistently on the offensive end while using his 6-foot-7 frame - the tallest on the team - to scoop up 31 total rebounds.
In the weeks since, other players have stepped into those roles. Junior guard Kenny Jackson made the greatest strides in the past month. From the season opener on Oct. 26 to Nov. 24, the Wyoming native shot 5-for-26 from three-point territory. However, from Dec. 1 to the team's most recent game on Dec. 29, he sunk 13 of 29 attempts from behind the arc, good for 44 percent shooting.
"Looking at where he came from, at his junior college I knew he could shoot," men's head coach Josh Vaughan said. "Sometimes, it's just timing and reps and just getting accustomed to the speed of the game in a different role. ... We've asked him to have a bigger role and do some different things for us. ... He got in the gym, he worked out, he was in here all the time working. He's been consistently making shots now."
Senior forward Melvin Collins has emerged as the team's reliable leading scorer, putting up 13.5 points per game, while also leading the squad with 69 rebounds.
The Blue Hawks (4-8, 0-1 NSAA) will have a challenge in Bellevue though, as the Bruins are 7-10 overall and led by versatile senior guard Sequan Walker. He leads the team with 44 assists while averaging just under 15 points per game. He also has the second-most boards on the Bruins with 70, 63 coming on the defensive end.
"They're talented, as always. They're kind of in a similar situation as us, having to bring so many new guys in," Vaughan said. "They're good, they're talented and playing down there is always hard. It's a long trip for us."
Heading into North Star play, Vaughan is confident his team now realizes just how tough they'll have to be to win.
"We're starting to figure out how hard we had to play earlier in the year," he said. "I don't think we understood the level you have to bring on a day-to-day basis in practice and especially in the games. I think we're starting to get that now. We're taking steps, but still not where we want to be."
DSU women's basketball
Record: 7-9, 0-1 NSAA
Opp. PPG: 70.5
Scoring: Chelsey Borden (12 ppg)
Rebounds: Rojin Karahan (7.3 r/g)
Steals: Ashlie Larson (25)
DSU men's basketball
Record: 4-8, 0-1 NSAA
Opp. PPG: 78.5
Scoring: Melvin Collins (13.5 ppg)
Rebounds: Collins (5.8 r/g)
Steals: Travon Hamilton (14)