Through her program’s march in winning three consecutive Big Ten women’s basketball titles, Coquese Washington has typically known in advance how her Penn State squad will respond under pressure.
For the early stages of the 2014-15 season, however, Washington might not decipher how the Lady Lions are equipped any sooner than someone watching on TV back at home. Penn State is in the middle of a reset this time around, certainly with skilled players and a confidence-boosting tradition but without the comfort that only comes when a seasoned roster takes the court.
What the Lady Lions surely grasp is last year’s core group of four seniors is gone – Maggie Lucas and Ariel Edwards are both in the WNBA – and there’s just one senior on hand now. This is a team that plays uptempo and will do so even if it takes time to get in rhythm.
“I’ve had the wonderful privilege of working with a coaching group that has been highly successful, like Russ Rose (6-time NCAA D-I champion volleyball coach), and Russ told me you don’t lower your standards because a team is young or inexperienced. His advice is to keep the standards high and work to help them get there,” said Washington, whose team went 24-8 last year and reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. “What does change is how we get there. I’m more focused on us establishing what our identity will be. We want to play fast, and we’ve beaten it to death how important it is to put points on the board, but how we do it is a work in progress.”
Senior Tori Waldner did start every game last year, and at 6-foot-5 is a place to turn for points in the halfcourt. But no one older than a sophomore is expected to see time at point guard, and it seems likely there will be pros and cons to that situation. When asked if she’d carefully ease players into the game-day fray or would force-feed the newcomers, Washington proposed a little of both.
“This is very reminiscent of the group we had a few years ago. They came in as freshmen, and we threw them into the fire and made them learn on the job,” Washington said. “We knew they would make mistakes and that there would be challenges, but we knew they’d grow. What we have to do is make sure (this group) will get a ton of experience.”
One of the more intriguing fresh faces is redshirt sophomore Sierra Moore, a 5-11 guard who was a national top-50 recruit out of high school who signed to play at Duke. After the Blue Devils needed to revisit some position needs because of injuries, Moore was put in the frontcourt and swiftly understood it was not going to be a good fit.
After sitting out a year, Moore’s enthusiastic return to the floor comes just as Penn State needs options in this era of transition.
“It was eye-opening, with all the veterans gone and just one senior back. I was sitting out, but I knew I had to have a big impact for the team, so I was really excited,” Moore said. “I know I’m practicing to play now, to make my team better. Last year wasn’t a loss, but it’s comforting to know I will be playing that first game on (Nov. 14).
“Having a year to work on my shot was really good. At Duke, I didn’t have the time to work on my shot because I was doing more at the post. I had some lows with my shooting, but it’s a confidence thing, and I’m getting it back. I know I had that jumper before.”
Moore’s ability to survive and thrive in the transfer process may give the Lady Lions another boost down the line once Brianna Banks is eligible to suit up. Banks, a 5-9 senior guard, transferred after three seasons at Connecticut and will add some savvy to Penn State lineup come next season.
“We have a great relationship, and she’ll fit right in,” Moore said of Banks. “She plays with intensity on defense and brings a lot of athleticism to us. I can’t wait to play with her next year.”
“Tension doesn’t linger (between coaches); I see anything to do with transfers as private business,” Washington added. “I worked with a UConn assistant this summer, and we had a great conversation about Brianna. We all understand things don’t work out sometimes, and it’s not really anyone’s fault. You have to find a place that fits. I think most coaches are supportive of each other, when we’re not trying to beat each other’s brains out on the floor.”
How Penn State ultimately works through these mysteries is just one topic of interest in the Big Ten Conference. Maryland and Rutgers have joined the Big Ten; Michigan State has three starters back from a team that won 13 league games last year; and Minnesota has some sturdy talent back as well.
“There’s a lot to learn for everyone, and we have to develop as a team on the court – we almost have it,” Moore said. “We want to win the Big Ten again, but we know we’ll have to work hard at it – I feel like we could very well be a team that peaks at the end.”
“We are an unknown quantity in the conference. No one knows what to expect, and we’re not worried about anything outside of us,” Washington added. “The season is long, and what matters is March and April. We’re not getting fired up about Big Ten predictions – we’ve always had the same approach.”