Minot State University women's basketball fans might do a double-take the first time they see Katie Hardy in action this season.
The junior forward redshirted last season with a shoulder injury, but as soon as she was cleared for physical activity she changed her eating habits and worked out two or three times a day.
Ten months later, she's carrying 90 fewer pounds on her 6-foot frame and is prepared to showcase increased quickness and versatility, beginning with a pair of exhibition games Saturday and Sunday against Salish-Kootenai College (Mont.). The Beavers open their regular season at home against South Dakota Mines on Nov. 8.
Minot State University junior Katie Hardy is returning from a redshirt season 90 pounds lighter and will help bolster a deep and talented frontcourt.
Hardy averaged 8.5 points per game in 2011-12, displaying an automatic midrange jump shot and skilled passing from the high post. Now, she's also a threat to drive past defenders.
"The thing about Katie that's always been consistent is she's fundamentally sound," MSU coach Sheila Green Gerding said. "She's got great moves, she's got great savvy for the game. All that is still there, now it's just twice as fast, maybe three times as fast. She went from being the slowest kid on the team to probably being the second or third fastest on the team. She's able to take people off the drive, able to get up and down in transition."
Hardy said the transition to her new body wasn't exactly smooth.
"I actually tripped over lines ... and I just used the excuse that I'm too quick," she said. "It has taken some (adjustment), just telling myself I need to slow down and do things before I go. I'm excited. It's changed who I am completely and I'm ready to go."
Junior Christina Boag is also returning from an injury-induced redshirt year. The 6-2 forward averaged 9.5 points and 6.5 rebounds and led the team with 31 blocked shots two seasons ago.
Boag and Hardy will join Christina's twin, Carly, to form a formidable frontcourt. Carly, a senior, led the Beavers in scoring (18.0 ppg) and rebounding (11.8 rpg) last season en route to first-team all-conference and honorable mention All-America honors. The Beavers finished 13-14, with Carly Boag single-handedly carrying them to a few of those wins.
MSU often employed a four-guard lineup around the gifted post player, giving her plenty of room to operate inside.
Green Gerding said she isn't concerned that a bigger lineup will infringe upon Carly Boag's space. She said Hardy and both Boags are capable of playing either forward position or center.
"I really believe that people have to guard those three," Green Gerding said. "They can all shoot it from outside and even Carly's improved her range in the offseason. So I think that if you don't guard 'em, it stretches the floor and we're gonna hit outside shots on you. I also think defensively it gives us an advantage on the boards."
Carly Boag expects the slimmer Hardy to be more effective, particularly on defense.
"She's a lot quicker off the drive and she's driving a lot more," Carly Boag said. "She can still shoot outside like no other, but it's improved her game a lot, especially on defense. She can play outside now and not just in the middle."
Green Gerding said 6-3 sophomore Savana Kingsbury has improved from her freshman season and will add even more depth to the frontcourt.
Senior Alisha "Speedy" Jones will likely remain the starting point guard after a hot-and-cold first season with MSU. The junior-college transfer showed flashes of brilliant offensive play - including a season-high 16 points against Northern State - but committed 66 turnovers to 41 assists.
Green Gerding said Jones is showing signs of being a more consistent performer this year.
"She's being a great leader for us in practice," she said. "She's probably our motor this year. We go as she goes and she gives it her all every time she steps on the court."
The shooting guard position is the biggest unknown entering the season. Junior Morgan Klose led MSU with 32 made 3-pointers last season and is the most proven scorer from the wing. Also in the mix for playing time at the wing spots is 6-1 sophomore Sarah Lester, transfer Carli Elwin, redshirt freshman Alex Haley and freshman Diondra Denton.
Green Gerding said it will take time to find the Beavers' best lineup, but a talented, experienced front line should ease the transition.
"It's gonna be huge for us, just having all three of us back again," Hardy said of playing alongside the Boags. "It's gonna lead us to some really good things. Working together and being able to read each other is a big thing, because our actions will lead."
Daniel Allar covers Minot State University athletics. Follow him on Twitter @DAllar_MDN.