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Young women's squad up to Canada West challenge

If a team wants to see how it matches up against the rest of its competition in university basketball, it might as well find out right away.

If a team wants to see how it matches up against the rest of its competition in university basketball, it might as well find out right away.

That's the situation the UNBC women's squad faces as it tips off against the Thompson Rivers University WolfPack, one of the top teams in its division to open the 2014-15 season tonight in Kamloops.

With a 13-9 record in the 2013-14 season, the WolfPack made the Canadian Interuniversity Sport Canada West playoffs in the former Pacific Division. Meanwhile, the Timberwolves won only six games and lost 16 in the same division.

Canada West realigned its divisions in June and both UNBC and TRU now compete in the new Explorers Division, which makes its premiere this weekend.

"TRU is a strong basketball team. For three years in a row, they made the playoffs," said UNBC head coach Sergey Shchepotkin. "Last season we beat them in the pre-season but they were a very different team and so were we, so you cannot compare them. The WolfPack are considered leaders in the conference."

The Timberwolves roster this year is young, as 90 per cent of the team is comprised of first- and second-year players.

UNBC lost four of its top players to graduation last season - Jen Bruce, Mercedes Van Koughnett, Emily Kaehn and Chelsey Thorne - and Shchepotkin had a busy off-season recruiting a new class of freshmen.

Among Shchepotkin's new class is 18-year-old Vasiliki Loukas, a six-foot-three post player right out of high school in Greece.

Sarah Buckingham is a guard from Langley, Stacey Graham is a third-year transfer student from North Vancouver's Capilano University and Nicole Boon is a six-foot forward from Kelowna.

Point guard Hannah Pudlas joins the team straight out of Cedars Christian School.

They join third-year player Jasprit Nijjar and two-fifth year players - Sarah Robin and Kellieanne Fluit.

In the pre-season, UNBC won only two of nine games. Those victories came against Grande Prairie Regional College (62-48) and Red Deer College (63-59), schools that compete in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference.

The T-wolves lost all three games in Winnipeg Oct. 24-26 against the University of Manitoba, University of Jamestown (North Dakota) and the University of Winnipeg.

"They've been working hard [in the pre-season] but it's still going to be challenging," said Shchepotkin. "The good thing is we are getting better."

The Explorers Division also includes UBC Okanagan (Kelowna), University of the Fraser Valley (Abbotsford), Mount Royal University (Calgary) and MacEwan University (Edmonton).

Teams will play each other four times over the course of the regular season with the top-three teams crossing over to compete against the top-seven from the 11-team Pioneers Division.

The Timberwolves battle TRU tonight and Saturday and then travel to Abbotsford for a pair of contests against UFV Nov. 14-15. They return to their home court at the Northern Sport Centre Nov. 21-22 to host the Mount Royal Cougars.

"Starting the season on the road is all right," said Shchepotkin. "The girls will be more focused playing away and I hope it will give them some confidence [for the rest of the season]."