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With change in the air, women's basketball opens Friday at UMF

Sophomore Jackie Welch will be Bates' starting point guard in its season opener at UMaine-Farmington on Nov. 20, 2015. (File photo by Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College)

LEWISTON, Maine -- The Bates women's basketball team opens the 2015-16 season this weekend, with games at UMaine-Farmington on Friday (7pm) and at the University of New England on Saturday (1pm). And for the first time since 1994, the Bobcats will be coached by someone other than Jim Murphy.

It is certainly a season of change, not only for the team but for Alison Montgomery, hired this year as the head coach following Murphy's retirement. First of all, Montgomery became a mother this fall. And she comes to Bates after four years as assistant coach at Division I Navy, during which time the Midshipwomen went a cumulative 80-48. Prior to that she helped coach Bowdoin, her alma mater, to a 70-18 mark over three years. In four years as a player at Bowdoin between 2001 and 2005, the Polar Bears lost only nine games, five fewer than Bates lost in 2014-15 alone in finishing 10-14.

"The landscape of the NESCAC was a little bit different back then," Montgomery said this week on the Bates Bobcast podcast. "It was pretty much Bates and Bowdoin [on top of the league] every year."

Tasked with returning Bates to its winning ways, Montgomery is naturally beginning by importing the blueprint for success she has experienced at Bowdoin and Navy. 

"I'd like to think I have some insight into, beyond the X's and O's, what it takes to develop a team culture that can lend itself to success. It's kind of a cliche, but among women, building culture can be a really important part of a successful team."

In a season over three months long, change won't happen all at once. But in preseason practices and scrimmages, the Bobcats have already been working hard at controlling the ball and game tempo more than seasons past.

"Bates, in my experience has been really uptempo -- they played pretty freely, which I think is awesome in lots of ways," she said. "[But] you know, you win by it and you lose by it. So I think at the offensive and defensive end we've been working on being a more disciplined team, a little more controlled offensively."

With nine sophomores and four first-year players, the Bobcats are a young squad. Yet the team's three captains -- lone senior Chelsea Nason (Topsfield, Mass.) and lone juniors Bernadette Connors (Windham, N.H.) and Allie Coppola (Tarrytown, N.Y.) -- are about as game-experienced as they can be relative to their age. All three will start this weekend and will be counted upon to lead Bates' transition into its new identity, all while continuing to dominate floor time as Bates looks to win as many games as possible.

"They've been working really hard," said Montgomery. "I think we have some really talented kids, some kids who are invested, who have a lot of pride in Bates women's basketball and want to get it back to where it was in the past."

All three captains started every game last season, and that will continue this weekend. Nason and Connors are two of three starting guards; both possess height and versatility that Montgomery hopes will pose matchup problems for opponents. Meanwhile sophomore Jackie Welch (Falmouth, Maine) assumes the team's starting point guard slot. 

"Jackie's a local kid from a really nice, winning program and culture (at Catherine McAuley High School in Portland). She has a good grip on what it takes to be successful. She's been really tough and showed some really nice court leadership at the point."

One of the team's first-year players, 5-foot-5 Madeline Foote (Duxbury, Mass.), will likely share duties at the point from the get-go.

Coppola anchors Bates' starting frontcourt. Already in her second season as a team captain, she begins the second half of her college career having already amassed 447 rebounds in 48 games thus far and boasting career averages of 9.1 points and 9.3 rebounds per game.

Sophomore Nina Davenport (Freeport, Maine) rounds out Bates' starting lineup. Remarkably, the 5-foot-11 forward earned Maine Rookie of the Year honors last season after joining the team in late December 2014 and missing the first nine games. When she was inserted into the starting lineup for the team's final seven games, the former University of Maine transfer student poured in 23.1 points and grabbed 8.0 rebounds per game, while taking over 18 shots per contest. While Davenport will surely take her fair share of shots again, her looks will likely be more concentrated in the paint.

"Nina is another player with really nice versatility; kind of a theme for us," said Montgomery. "She is going to play in the post for us, but she has a lot of guard-like skills, and is a really confident shooter."