LEWISTON — It would be easy for Bates College to get lost in the shuffle of both Maine women’s college basketball and its increasingly brutal conference.

Competition within a two-hour radius has never been stronger. The University of Southern Maine and Bowdoin College are ranked in the NCAA Division III top 25 every year. And look no further that the University of New England’s 15-point win over USM on Tuesday night to get a glimpse of the field’s depth.

Then there’s the New England Small College Athletic Conference, which has begun to match its lofty academic reputation with on-court success.

“Amherst was a Final Four team last year and has all five starters back,” said Bates coach Jim Murphy. “Bowdoin beat them twice. Williams had a great first-year class. Colby has everybody back. I think Tufts is going to be good. Five or six years ago, there probably were five or six games every year you pretty much knew you were going to win, You can’t say that anymore.”

Which makes Bates’ ledger over the last decade-plus even more impressive.

The Bobcats have fashioned 14 straight winning seasons with Murphy, now entering his 16th year at the helm. Their record in that span is a sterling 264-97. They’ve made six NCAA tournament appearances, the last in 2006.  

Bates women’s hoop has been a standard-bearer for a school that hasn’t tasted much extended success in team sports. And with all but two graduating seniors back in camp this season, the streak should continue into a new decade.

“You can’t take anyone in NESCAC lightly,” cautioned senior tri-captain Lauren Yanofsky. “We can’t go into any game expecting that we’re going to win.”

“That said,” added Jessie Igoe, a junior captain, “we definitely want to compete for the NESCAC title. We want to go into the NCAA tournament and kick some butt there.”

Bates’ streak has required the Bobcats to move forward when four-year starters and All-America caliber players leave the program. This season offers one of the toughest challenges to date: Reloading after the graduation of conference player of the year Val Beckwith. 

Beckwith departed as the 16th 1,000-point scorer in team history. She finished with 1,470 points, nine behind Emily King for No. 1 on Bates’ all-time list.

“I think we’re going to have a strong five out on the floor at all times,” said senior captain Kellie Goodridge. “Each of us has an individual responsibility as a captain, but everybody has to step up and be a leader.”

“Losing a player like Val Beckwith obviously hurts,” Murphy said. “I think what we have this year is a lot more depth. Our first-year class and our sophomore class are very strong. Really from one to 10 we can send anybody out there without losing a whole bunch.”

Unlike the rosters at Bowdoin and Southern Maine, which are heavy with in-state talent, Bates enters the 2009-10 season with only two homegrown players: Kelsey Flaherty and Bri Hawkins of South Portland.

Seven of the Bobcats hail from Massachusetts. Players also were recruited from New Hampshire, Vermont, Pennsylvania and Illinois.

“I’m not sure why that is. You try like crazy to get the ones close to home,” Murphy said. “There are a lot more good high school basketball players everywhere. And I think that the quality of coaching in our conference has improved dramatically. It’s not that the others weren’t good coaches. But these coaches are very good at going out and getting players.”

Bates opens the season Friday night against Mount Holyoke at the Brandeis tournament. 

Key games include a trip to Southern Maine next Tuesday, non-conference tilts with Husson and the University of Maine at Farmington on Dec. 1 and 2, Bowdoin on Jan. 7 and 22, and home Feb. 5 against Amherst.

The Bobcats tuned up with an alumni game last weekend, one that was a testament to the strength of the program since the mid-1990s.

“Colleen McCrave came back. Emily King came back. They can still push me,” said Murphy, a 1969 Bates graduate. “This does keep you young. I’ve been very fortunate. Time flies when you’re having fun.”

Jim Murphy works with his women’s basketball team at Bates before their first game on Friday night. Murphy lost only two seniors from a strong team last year, giving them hope of competing with Bowdoin, Amherst and the other perennial powers of its Division III conference.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.