Elle Ruffridge

Junior Elle Ruffridge shields the ball from her Lincoln defender.

The Missouri State Lady Bears are coming off one of the greatest seasons in the history of the program, but the party’s over now.

After making an improbable run to the Sweet 16 last year, the Lady Bears have their sights set on the 2019-20 season and enter the new year with a target on their backs.

“We can’t take anybody for granted just like they took us,” sophomore Jasmine Franklin said. “We know what it takes to get to the Sweet 16, and we know that we can go further.”

But first, the Lady Bears are looking to improve in their nonconference portion of their schedule. Missouri State started the season 1-7 last year.

Head coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton’s early-season goals are straightforward.

“Win,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “One thing that was very consistent with every player on the team is that they wanted to win in nonconference and have a better showing from the beginning. We are taking it day-by-day. Coming off a run like we had last year, there is a lot of pressure, but I don’t want to focus on that. I just want to focus game-by-game.”

Agugua-Hamilton doesn’t think because of the team’s success in the NCAA Tournament last season that will automatically translate into more success this year in nonconference play.

“Last year was last year,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “We recognize it. The girls wear their rings sometimes, but it’s a whole new year.”

Take the Missouri Valley Conference preseason polls, for example.

The Lady Bears were picked to finish second in the MVC all while losing only one player from last year’s team.

Not only that, the Lady Bears were picked to finish behind Drake, a team they beat twice last season, once in the postseason tournament championship game. Missouri State also didn’t have a single player on the preseason all-conference team.

It’s safe to say the Lady Bears will be playing with a chip on their shoulders.

“I think we were a little disrespected,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “It adds fuel to the fire. Individually, they worked really hard and have gotten better. We have to prove it.”

Agugua-Hamilton will soon make her debut as the head coach of the Lady Bears. She replaced Kellie Harper, who was hired at Tennessee following the team’s magical run in April.

The roster features 12 returning players who were on the team a year ago, including senior Alexa Willard and juniors Brice Calip and Abby Hipp, as well as Franklin, who were the Lady Bears at Media Day on Oct. 17.

All four are excited to get the season going, especially Hipp, who played a big role in the team’s postseason run a year ago.

“Last year was something special,” Hipp said. “I firmly believe we can get back there. We have a ton of confidence in our team and our program.”

While the team is moving past the 2018-19 campaign, expectations for this season have not wavered.

“We don’t forget about last year, but at the same time, we are moving forward,” Agugua-Hamilton said. “We are using that as a stepping stone to where we can be.”