At first, Seton Sobolewski felt a little concerned about his Idaho State club this summer.
The Bengals were months removed from one of the best seasons in program history: A regular-season championship, a conference title and a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Plus, in the weeks that followed the end of the season, Idaho State made the rounds that come with those accolades. Ring ceremonies. Speaking engagements. Awards banquets.
Sobolewski felt proud of his group’s accomplishments, but in the back of his mind, he wondered: Do I need to push the group to turn the page?
That’s the nice thing about returning almost the entire team from seasons like that, though.
You don’t have to encourage them to do much. Instead, Sobolewski never made a big deal out of moving on. He never talked to the team about it, never pushed them to put last season in the past.
“It happened organically,” Sobolewski said.
Which brings us here, to the start of Idaho State’s new season, which officially kicks off Tuesday with a road test against preseason No. 10 Oregon.
Most importantly, the Bengals return their entire starting five: Point guard Diaba Konate, shooting guard Dora Goles, small forward Estefania Ors, power forward Callie Bourne and center Ellie Smith, the group that helped last season’s Bengals win their first Big Sky regular-season and tournament titles in nine years. Idaho State also returns its first two options off the bench in Tomekia Whitman and Montana Oltrogge.
The cast of characters has stuck together for quite awhile, but it also features a good amount of talent.
Last season, Goles led Idaho State with 12.4 points per game, earning first-team all-conference honors. Konate, who pulled down 11.9 rebounds per game, was named to the all-conference second team. Even Ors secured conference tournament MVP honors, tallying 21 points in the group’s title-clinching win over Idaho, which stuffed a trophy case that also includes Big Sky Freshman of the Year in 2016-17, Top Reserve in 2017-18 and honorable mention all-conference in 2018-19.
That’s a long-winded, roundabout way of stating the obvious: The Bengals return almost everyone from a team that was already loaded with talent and experience. The team’s only offseason departures came from graduate Delaney Moore.
“The way our team is made and the way our system is,” Sobolewski said, “you’re just not going to have many players that put up big numbers. We move the ball a lot. We share the ball a lot. It’s true, freelance motion offense. A lot of movement and screening. So that’s the core to our culture, too. It’s a lot of unselfishness.”
For all the Bengals’ returning pieces, though, they also have several new ones. Seven freshmen line this year’s roster, including two walk-ons in Paisley Specht and Century alum Tenleigh Smith. Playing time for the newcomers will be limited but expect to see, at least, Anaya Bernard and Kayla Salmons get action.
That puts the team in an interesting spot. Idaho State wants to get the most out of the roster it has, namely all the seniors, the bunch doing their last go-around with the program. At the same time, the Bengals also want to develop the next group, the batch of freshmen and underclassmen who will take over in the years to come.
“It’s a long-term plan with that,” Sobolewski said. “You can get enough preparation and practice and reps in to get ready to win games, but also, you can slow down enough when you have to, to help coach the younger people and cultivate them. We’re always going to put winning first. We don’t want to be so concerned about the future that we don’t take care of the present.
“So we want to win, but it does take a little bit more time and practices and things because you’re trying to slow things down and help these guys.”
At any rate, Idaho State’s season is already underway. The Bengals started their season — unofficially — with a 91-58 exhibition win over the College of Idaho Friday night.
Idaho State expected a win there. Different may be the club’s regular-season opener against No. 10 Oregon. The Bengals do have experience taking down Power 5 clubs, like the way they upset Kansas State last season, a monumental victory for the program.
Oregon, though, may be a different beast. Time will tell. Either way, the $25,000 check Idaho State gets for showing up will help.
“You learn what you need to work on by playing good teams,” Sobolewski said. “Maybe we are at a place where we can upset someone like that, after our experiences last year.”