I am an eternal optimist, but that was a challenge for my optimism. For the last little while, it seems every time things come together, we have an injury or something pop up. —Anthony Levrets, Utah women's basketball head coach

SALT LAKE CITY — Just six months ago, the Utah women’s basketball team closed a season full of ranked opponents with an unlikely run to the women’s NIT championship game. On Friday, the Utes are heading back to the court to start another season.

Already, they've been forced to adjust to a couple of major injuries.

“I am an eternal optimist,” said head coach Anthony Levrets, “but that was a challenge for my optimism. For the last little while, it seems every time things come together, we have an injury or something pop up.”

Utah will open this season Friday evening with a home exhibition game against University of Mary, and the Utes will do so without forwards Taryn Wicijowski and Paige Crozon.

Wicijowski will spend the season rehabilitating a torn ACL, which she suffered while training during the summer. It is the second ACL tear for the redshirt senior since she has been at Utah; however, this injury is not in the same knee.

Meanwhile, Crozon will opt to redshirt to recover from a concussion she suffered back in March and is still experiencing symptoms from.

The coach remains positive, however, regarding the upcoming season, which will now feature more underclassmen than originally anticipated.

“We had a plan in place based on those two bigs. It was built around them. This completely changes things because our other players’ skill sets are so different,” Levrets said. “We are going to play to their strengths. We’re still trying to figure out what we’re going to be really good at.”

Taking the lead is returning senior Michelle Plouffe, a two-time Associated Press honorable mention All-American and Canadian Olympian. A three-year starter, Plouffe has averaged 15.1 points and 8.3 rebounds per game across her career.

Alongside Plouffe is starting point guard Danielle Rodriguez, a sophomore who, with a year of starting now under her belt, will have an opportunity to show her leadership skills this season.

“Her physical skills have greatly improved; she is stronger and more explosive,” Levrets said. “She is also an exceptional leader, and those qualities are really starting to show.”

Redshirt junior Ciera Dunbar is returning to the floor healthy, and junior Cheyenne Wilson has impressed the coach, turning into a reliable an all-dimension wing over the summer.

With the loss of his two forwards, Levrets plans to work all of his freshmen into the game plan.

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“They thought they were going to have a chance to ease into things,” he said. “Nope. They are going to have to learn on the fly. And they can. We have a very talented group. They are just young.”

The coach has confidence that group can again compete with the talented Pac-12 pool. Stanford and California are picked to finish first and second in the league, but “No. 3 through No. 12 are all pretty comparable," Levrets said.

“Any of those teams have an opportunity to win on any given night,” Levrets said, “and we have an opportunity to be in that mix as long as we continue to improve just as we always have.”

Sarah Thomas earned a degree in Mathematics from the University of Utah and is currently pursuing an MBA at Westminster College. She has been covering sports for the Deseret News since 2008.