PROVO — With a new conference affiliation, new assistant coaches on the staff, and an influx of new players, the BYU women's basketball program is undergoing plenty of changes.
The Cougars are poised to open their first season in the West Coast Conference, and coach Jeff Judkins has two new assistants — Melinda Bendall and Ray Stewart. Judkins also has highly touted freshman Lexi Eaton, a former Springville High star.
"I'm excited for a new conference, a new look and new rivalries," said Judkins. "It's nice to have new faces and we're excited for what we have."
"I'm really excited about this team," said senior guard Haley Steed. "We're young but we're talented. We're really athletic. It's kind of a fun change, with a change in conference. We have a brand new team and a new coaching staff. I think there's a lot of excitement around the program right now."
BYU posted a 25-9 record a year ago and won the Mountain West Conference championship in its final season in the league.
But the Cougars suffered a painful, last-second loss to Utah in the MWC Tournament semifinals in Las Vegas and were not invited to the NCAA Tournament. They had to settle for the WNIT.
That disappointment has stuck with BYU players during the off-season.
"It was a horrible, horrible feeling. I still remember it very clearly. It's a huge motivator," Steed said. "No. 1 on our list of goals is to go to the NCAA Tournament this year. That was a huge disappointment for us last year after winning the regular season in the Mountain West. We put a huge damper on our season by losing in the conference tournament."
Senior forward Kristen Riley said she has been motivated by last year's ending, too.
"I think about it every time I come out here to practice," she said. "This is what we're working for. We always talk about being conference champions, but we have that other goal of going to the NCAA Tournament right behind it."
BYU is hoping to contend with WCC power Gonzaga for the league crown. "Gonzaga has dominated for the conference for so long, it will be hard," Judkins said.
For the Cougars to compete for the WCC title, they will need help from newcomers like Eaton.
"Lexi is the top recruit that I've recruited here," said Judkins, who is in his 11th season at the helm. "She's a top-20 player in the country. We're very lucky for that."
Judkins said that Eaton will play the same position that Mindy Bonham, the team's leading scorer a year ago who has graduated. He believes Eaton can fill that scoring void.
Other notable freshmen include Ashley Garfield (Morgan High School) and Xojian Harry (Viewmont/Woods Cross High School). Joining the group are a pair of redshirt freshmen, Stephanie Rovetti an Morgan Bailey.
"A few of them are going to have to contribute from the very start," Steed said of the freshmen.
Judkins said he plans to expand the role Jennifer Hamson, a 6-foot-7 sophomore center who also stars on the Cougar volleyball team.
"I will bet you that by the time she walks out of here, she'll be the MVP in volleyball and the MVP in basketball," Judkins said. "She could be the best player in the league in two years in both sports. We're happy to have her."
The Cougars have also welcomed back junior forward Alexis Kaufusi, who was diagnosed with cancer last season.
"I'm shocked, to tell you the truth," Judkins said of Kaufusi's return. "I never thought she'd be at this point."
"It's awesome. It's an inspiration having her," Steed said. "She reminds us every day that you can't take it for granted. To have her here is a symbol of what determination and hard work is."
BYU opens the regular season at home against national power Duke on Nov. 11.