NCAA Women: Giant Aussie class makes it official during early signing period

The Australian presence in NCAA Division I women’s basketball looks set to continue to swell, with no less than 23 players signing with college programs during this week’s early signing period.

Players from all five mainland states as well as the ACT have put pen to paper with a host of those heading to power conference programs, the most notable being #3 ranked Oregon’s capture of 2016 Under 17 World Champion duo Jazmin Shelley and Lucy Cochrane.

The western part of the US continues to be the premier destination for Australian players. Over 40 players already play for schools on or close to the west coast, and another 10 are set to head there next year. Shelley and Cochrane will be joined in Oregon by Portland signing Nunawading youngster Keeley Frawley, who will become the second Australian at the Pilots alongside freshman sensation Haylee Andrews, who has started the season in scintillating form.

Portland’s West Coast Conference foes and arch-rivals of Aussie-laden Saint Mary’s, Gonzaga have picked up an Aussie of their own in the form of Eliza Hollingsworth. Hollingsworth recently represented Australia at the FIBA Under 17 World Cup, picking up a bronze medal. Averaging 13 minutes per game, Hollingsworth’s top performance came in the team’s dominant 81-43 win over Angola in the group stage, where she tallied 9 points and picked up 6 rebounds in just 14 minutes on court.

Across the state line, but just 80 miles away from Gonzaga, Western Australian shooting guard Caitlyn Jones is set to move to Idaho, continuing the pipeline from down under to the Vandals with this season being the first since 2008-09 that the roster did not feature at least one Australian. A state representative at Under 16 and 18 levels, Jones has been a regular for Stirling in the WA State Basketball League for the past two seasons. She has played 43 games whilst improving her scoring average from 2.1 to 5.9 points per game between 2017 and 2018.

Moving south to California, a trio of Big West schools have picked up Aussies, with UC Irvine snaring a pair of Victorian stars in forward Sophia Locandro and shooting guard Jayde Cadee. The pair were members of the Victoria Metro team that secured this year’s Under 18 national championship, whilst Locandro has also been named to the Victorian roster for the upcoming Under 20 nationals. Both players have also spent time in the national team setup recently, with Locandro being named to the selection camp for the Under 18 Asian Championships, whilst Cadee was named in the extended squad for the Under 17 World Cup.

Locandro and Cadee will be joined in California by fellow Vic Metro Under 18 squad member Abbey Ellis, who has signed for Cal Poly. Like Locandro, she will represent the state at the Under 20 nationals, playing for Victoria White as the state enters two sides in 2019. Western Australia’s Carla Drennan rounds out the quartet of Big West commitments, signing with CSU Northridge after finishing this year’s Under 20 championships as Western Australia’s second-leading scorer with 10.7 points per game and averaging 5.7 points per contest in 23 games with Willetton in this year’s WA State Basketball League.

South Australian Katia Stamatelopoulos rounds out the western-based commitments, linking up with Tasmanian freshman Taylor Mole at Colorado State. The point guard has featured for the state team at both Under 18 and Under 20 levels, and also reached the SA Premier League Grand Final with Forestville in a side teeming with college commits, playing 23 minutes per contest, averaging 6.9 points and 4.9 rebounds in the process.

Switching tack, the ACC and Atlantic 10 are two of the premier basketball conferences on the east coast and three new Aussies will feature in each. Clemson is responsible for bringing two of those players to the ACC, with South Australia’s Hannah Hank and Victoria’s Isis Lopes signing with the Tigers. Hank was selected to the extended Under 17 World Cup squad earlier this year, while Lopes will be looking to return with a vengeance at this year’s Under 20s nationals before heading to college. She had been sidelined with a serious knee injury when national team representation looked likely in 2018.

The Clemson pair will be joined in the ACC by New South Wales’ Meg Jefferson, who has signed with Virginia. A member of Penrith’s Waratah Championship side, Jefferson led NSW Metro at the 2018 Under 18 nationals with 14.6 points and 7 rebounds per game, and is expected to make the step up to Under 20s in 2019 once the final NSW squad is named. With players of the calibre of Tiana Mangakahia (Syracuse), Alex Sharp (Wake Forest), Miela Goodchild (Duke), and Boston College trio Georgia Pineau, Taylor Ortlepp and Lana Hollingsworth already plying their trade in the conference, the ACC is certainly one league to watch when it comes to Australian women in college.

Meanwhile in the Atlantic 10, Aussie assistant coach James Janssen and Davidson are doubling up on Aussies, pairing freshman Cassidy Gould with new commit Adelaide Fuller of Queensland. A Basketball Australia Centre of Excellence graduate, the 6’3 forward has also spent time in the national team setup as a selection camp member for both the Gems and Sapphires in recent times. Fuller is also at this stage set to be the tallest member of the Wildcats roster next year, as while the team is not thin in the front court, they are also far from stacked at the forward spots.

One of two players from the ACT to commit during the early signing period, Rosie Schweizer will find herself just a stone’s throw from the American national capital as she makes her way to northern Virginia to play at George Mason. A perennial star of the ACT’s state teams for several years, Schweizer will not be making her farewell at the 2019 Under 20 championships, with the forward set to enrol at George Mason in January, becoming immediately eligible to play for the Patriots.

The Aussie presence in Philadelphia basketball is set to grow once more with the addition by St. Joseph’s of Western Australia’s Imogen Ayliffe. A member of the state’s Under 18 Metro side in 2018 alongside Caitlyn Jones, Ayliffe tallied an impressive 8.44 points and 7.11 rebounds per game in this year’s Under 18 national championships. Hawks coach Cindy Griffin certainly appears enamoured with Ayliffe’s ability to score in a number of ways, whilst her rebounding ability will be vital for a team that has struggled so far this year on the glass, sitting in the bottom 50 in the nation for rebound margin.

The Big 12 is only set to get bigger as a trio of Aussies with plenty of length head to the US’s southwest to continue their careers. Sapphires World Cup bronze medal-winning forward Ashlee Hannan has put pen to paper with Texas, linking up with a program that has certainly been on the rise in recent years. Further north, Victorian state team representative and Dandenong Rangers WNBL development player Maddi Puli is set to join fellow Victorians Ella Hellessey and Anneli Maley at TCU as Horned Frogs coach Raegan Pebley continues to build a pipeline from Australia to Fort Worth. NSW post player Chloe Bloom has also signed with Oklahoma. Bloom was one of just two bottom-aged players in the 2018 NSW Under 20 side, and her development has come on in leaps and bounds since joining Norths from Penrith in 2018 to play for the Bears’ Waratah Championship side, helping the team to their first women’s title.

Looking to the Midwest, the second ACT representative to sign is UC Capitals’ WNBL player Isabelle Bourne who will be heading to Nebraska for 2019 where she will be joining her sister, Idaho State freshman Callie, in the college system. Bourne was set to be a member of the recent Gems’ Under 18 Asian Championship side before being forced out through illness, having averaged a highly impressive 15 points and 13.8 rebounds as a bottom-aged player at the Under 20 nationals in February.

Marquette have signed a bumper class of eight players, with Victoria Metro Under 18 representative Sharna Ayres one member of the octet that will descend on Milwaukee next season. Ayres finished as Victoria Metro’s top scorer in the 2017 Under 18 championships, averaging 10.6 points per game and shooting 35% from three-point range. At 5’11, Marquette are reportedly high on Ayres’ size and shooting ability, with her ability to fill a range of immediate needs tabbed as being an asset to the Golden Eagles.

The Mid-American Conference has had a solid Aussie presence in recent seasons courtesy of players such as Courtney Woods and Stephanie Reid, and South Australian star Elissa Brett will continue that tradition after signing with Bowling Green in Ohio. A member of the Basketball Australia Centre of Excellence, Brett averaged 5.8 points and 4.3 rebounds per game in 11 contests in the most recent SEABL season, and will no doubt be one of the leaders of the South Australian side in the upcoming Under 20 national championships in February.

A teammate of Brett’s on the South Australian Under 20 team, Ella Sawyer will be heading to Austin Peay to join SIU Edwardsville's Alek Akuen and Eastern Illinois' Grace McRae in the Ohio Valley Conference. A regular member of South Australian state teams, Sawyer has also seen plenty of time on court for Forestville in the South Australian Premier League, playing 23 minutes per game in 2018 and chipping in just over 3 points, 3 assists, and 3 rebounds per contest for an Eagles side that reached the grand final before falling to North Adelaide.

11 of the 23 players have already been selected to represent their state at the upcoming Under 20 Australian Junior Championships. Adelaide Fuller is the sole Queensland representative, whilst Hannah Hank, Elissa Brett, and Ella Sawyer will pull on the red of South Australia. Seven players have been selected across the two Victorian teams, with Isis Lopes, Maddi Puli, Abbey Ellis, Sophia Locandro, Lucy Cochrane, Jazmin Shelley, and Eliza Hollingsworth all heading to Canberra in February. With New South Wales, Western Australia, and ACT still yet to announce their final squads, another five players could yet see themselves selected to represent their state one more time before heading to college.

Whilst the early signing period may be over, there will certainly be more additions to this Australian freshman class in the regular signing period between April 17 and May 15 of next year. The burning question now is: will the 30-player freshman class of 2018 be eclipsed in size by the 2019 class?