Last season, they were the Women in Black, a gang of screaming, foot-stomping, black-clad ladies-in-waiting for the Seawolves basketball team.
They sat in the bleachers behind the UAA bench, seven strong, dressed in matching black warmup suits and looking more than a little fierce.
By day, they were members of the team, expected to give the same effort at practice as anyone else. On game nights, they were the most engaged spectators at the Wells Fargo Sports Complex, their chants of "DEFENSE!" rising above any other noise.
"We looked like the mob," said Alysa Horn of Kodiak, a member of the gang.
The women were redshirts -- college athletes who skip a year of competition without losing a year of eligibility. Redshirts are allowed to practice but can't play in games.
Typically, athletes redshirt because of injury or academic problems, because they are just out of high school and need the extra year to learn and develop, or because NCAA transfer rules require them to. But when it comes to the UAA women's redshirts, some take a year off simply because there's no room for them on the roster, or because there's so much talent already on the roster that their playing time would be minimized.
Last season, the Seawolves had 15 players on the team and seven redshirts. This season, they have 13 on the team and five redshirts. Of the 13 on the roster, five were redshirts last season.
And they are thrilled to have traded their redshirt status for green-and-gold jerseys.
"It's hard being in the bleachers watching," said Horn, who was a freshman last season and, athletically speaking, is still a freshman this season. "It's one of the more difficult aspects of basketball I've ever experienced."
Leah Stepovich, a senior from Fairbanks, shared the bleachers with Horn last season. She played two seasons at a junior college and one at Seattle University before joining the Seawolves a year ago. She could have played last season, but coach Tim Moser encouraged her to sit out so she could learn his system. Then she got mono, and the decision was made for her.
"Of course it's hard to practice every day and not play in the games," she said. "But they made us as much a part of the team as they could. Every game day, we had to be there on time, we wore what they wore, we had the same curfew on game nights."
Moser said the coaching staff tried to keep the redshirts as involved as possible -- even putting the same academic demands on them as on active players.
"There's only 25 times when they're not 'part of the team.' The rest of the 140 days they're doing the same thing as everyone else," he said.
Besides Stepovich, a 5-foot-7 guard, and Horn, a 5-11 forward, this season's redshirts-turned-roster players are 5-8 junior guard Sarah Herrin of Nikiski, 5-10 junior forward Kelsie Gourdin of Littleton, Colo., and 5-6 freshman guard Jordan Martin of Anchorage. Two other redshirts didn't return.
Stepovich said it was at once amazing and frustrating to watch last season's Seawolves live a dream: a 31-4 record that earned them the nation's No. 1 ranking during part of the season and took them all the way to the NCAA Division II national semifinals.
"It was hard watching sometimes -- you wish you could be on the court -- but it was still amazing," she said.
"When the team was traveling, we stuck together. We still practiced. There's not many teams that have that many redshirts that they are able to scrimmage. We would text them good luck and watch as many games on TV as we could.
"We always joked around and said that when our actual team was No. 1, we were the No. 1 redshirts."
Now, they are contributors.
In a series sweep of Hawaii-Hilo, Stepovich, Herrin and Gourdin all played significant minutes and made significant contributions. Moser said each "will play an intricate role" this season.
Stepovich drilled three straight 3-pointers in one of the games against Hilo. Herrin had some of the Hilo players visibly shaken by her feisty, physical play. And Gourdin, an all-conference player for Mesa State before transferring to UAA, looked equally comfortable in the paint and on the perimeter and showed she can rebound, shoot and pass.
No longer the Women in Black, the one-time redshirts are eager to pick up where last year's team left off.
"Redshirting made me want to come back so I could experience what those girls experienced," Stepovich said. "It got us anxious to play."
Find Beth Bragg online at adn.com/contact/bbragg or call 257-4335.
By BETH BRAGG
Last season, they were the Women in Black, a gang of screaming, foot-stomping, black-clad ladies-in-waiting for the Seawolves basketball team. But b