The way last season ended still gnaws at the returning players on the Colorado Mesa women's basketball team.
"I think it would be very easy for us to think, oh, we had a great season and we had a lot of success, but there's also a thought in our competitiveness that everyone knows it wasn't enough," junior guard Kylyn Rigsby said. "I think it drove a lot of us in the summer and even now we want to reach our potential. We did a lot last year, but it wasn't enough and I think that will drive us this year to go even farther and be even better."
Junior forward Kelsey Siemons couldn't help but think of those final minutes of the Mavericks' 56-53 loss to Lubbock Christian in the South Central Regional semifinal. The Chaps used that win to catapult to their second national championship.
"For me over the summer, when I was working out or going out on runs, I'd say to myself, 'Lubbock wouldn't be tired,' " said Siemons, who averaged 6.6 points and 3.9 rebounds last season. "When we're playing, Coach (Taylor Wagner) always says that every shot is the game-winning shot, everything means something."
Rigsby and Siemons are two of eight returners who logged significant minutes last season and 11 veterans overall on this year's roster ready to fill bigger roles starting Friday in the Tarleton State Texan Tipoff Classic in Stephenville, Texas.
"We want to see everybody step up and not do it once every two weeks, but you're going to play like that every single day," Wagner said of what he hopes will be a balanced scoring effort after losing Jaylyn Duran, who made more 3-pointers than anyone in CMU history.
"On the defensive end it should be that way anyway. On offense I know you're going to have off nights here and there shooting, but we still have to be aggressive. With each game someone else will emerge and I'm like, 'OK, they're going to help us this year.' With each game I think we'll grow a little bit more."
One player who emerged in the Mavs' exhibition game against the University of Denver is junior guard Daniella Turner, who scored 25 points in 24 minutes.
"Last year I definitely got in my head about a lot of things, especially defensively, 'Oh, gosh, she's faster than me.' I can't let that happen this year, especially defensively," Turner said. "I can't be timid about anything. I've noticed when I'm timid on defense, I'm timid on offense. I've just gotta let everything go and play the game the way it is."
Wagner added three transfers and one freshman to the mix and said he can see this season's lineup and rotation changing as the players figure out roles.
"Last year, those starters were there the previous year, so they didn't think about anything, they were just moving," Wagner said. "This year we have generally someone new or someone playing a bigger role that they weren't used to, so we're thinking a lot still. Hopefully they'll keep evolving and they'll get better each game.
"We've gotta hang our hat on defense right now and that's what I've been trying to preach. That's the best thing we do early on, just in case we do have those struggles offensively finding out who's going to shoot it, when they're going to shoot it. I think we'll figure it out eventually."
Two transfers are not only familiar with the RMAC, they're familiar with the Mavericks, because they played against them last season, guards Elly Walters and Morgan Myers. Walters, a standout at Rifle High School, played at Regis last year, and Myers spent her first two years at Dixie State. Savannah Domgaard is a 6-foot forward who was an all-region player at Snow College.
A hard-nosed defensive player, Walters can also provide plenty of offense from the wing.
"This game is about defense and the last couple of weeks have shown I need to let my defense fuel my offense," she said. "Sometimes when I'm not hitting shots if it affects both sides. If I can help us defensively and get stops on that end and play my game on the offense end, get others open, it'll get myself open."
Point guard Sydni Brandon is back to run the team, one of three returning starters, along with Rigsby and Siemons.
The Mavericks, who went 27-4 last season and are either ranked or receiving votes in both preseason polls this season, have shown the work ethic Wagner demands, and the players see the potential for another successful season.
"I think it helps that we have a lot of juniors, seniors who have played in those big games, whether it's the NCAA tournament, the RMAC tournament, any of those big games," said Rigsby, who scored 8.9 points a game last season.
"We have a little more confidence, a little more experience and like Kelsey said, we worked hard to have the confidence to take that shot."
Like the returning players, the coaches remember the sting of how last season ended.
"Every year is different, if you lose one or five (players), it's going to be a different feel," Wagner said. "Hopefully the kids remember Lubbock dancing on our floor and hopefully that memory doesn't go away and they work hard on every single possession and want to get back to where they were."