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This season Wyoming Cowgirls head coach Joe Legerski needs Bailee Cotton, Marta Gomez, Taylor Rusk and Clara Tapia to be better than they’ve ever been.

Cotton needs to be a more consistent scorer, Gomez needs to be a better defender and rebounder, Tapia needs to develop her scoring abilities and Rusk needs to raise her game.

That leaves one opening — one important vacancy for the 2018-19 Wyoming Cowgirls basketball team. Senior Rachelle Tucker appeared to be the heir to that position when practices started in late September. And, in all likelihood, the Cowgirls would need an immediate impact from at least one of the six freshmen on the team.

Perhaps with all of those components the Cowgirls can match last year’s success. But for those six seniors and their honorary senior, actual junior Rusk, this season isn’t about getting back to where they were. It’s about finally making this year the year.

“It sucks being that close but we’ve just got to take it to the next season, have a little edge this year, knowing what it feels like to be that close we definitely don’t want to feel that way again,” Rusk said. “We’re going to do everything we can to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

Last season the Cowgirls finished with 22 wins, within reach of a conference championship and into the post-season for the second straight year. The bittersweet reality, however, is that the Cowgirls fell short of a regular-season conference title by losing their last two Mountain West games, then lost in the semifinals of the conference tournament before losing in the second round of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament. Leading the charge through that year was Mountain West Player of the Year Liv Roberts and a veteran senior class.

There’s no replacing Roberts. There’s no template to produce a 1,000-point scorer who stands 16th in program history in rebounds. So it’ll be on last year’s supporting cast to become stars in their own right.

“It’s going to take a committee to replace the senior class that went out,” Legerski said. “There’s some openings for people to step up. I need Rachelle to step up and we’re going to have to rely on one or two of the freshmen to do the same.”

The Cowgirls will be without one of their prospective weapons for the season’s duration. Selale Kepenc suffered a season-ending knee injury during the European Championships this summer while representing her home country of Turkey.

The team still has the senior duo of Tijana Raca and Sladjana Rakovic, and Legerski anticipates Rakovic to have much greater responsibilities this year.

With so much in the air, and an even split between six seniors and six freshmen, no one on the team has put a label on expectations. This season’s team doesn’t have the same spotlight players from last year and too many new faces to predict a starting lineup, let alone a finish in conference.

And, according to Legerski, the success of this year’s team depends on how those veterans improve and which of those unproven players emerges.

Veterans on the team know what the expectations are. They all know their games need to improve from what they were last year. Not just for themselves, but for the greater team goal. After all, they don’t want this season to end like the last two.

“I’m pushing myself to do even more than I did last year, same with Marta and Clara, and even Taylor even though she’s just a junior,” said Cotton, who was named to the all-MW Defensive Team last year. “It’s like this has got to be the year for us.”

Added Gomez, the back-to-back Sixth Player of the Year in the league: “Just knowing we were so close last year helps us be ready for this year because if we’re back in the final game and we know we can get it, then we’re going to be ready.”

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Follow sports reporter Brady Oltmans on Twitter @BradyOltmans

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High School Sports Reporter

Brady Oltmans reports on high school and local sports. He joined the Star-Tribune in July 2016 after covering prep sports and college soccer in Nebraska. He also contributes to University of Wyoming sports coverage. He and his dog live in Casper.

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