With 16 teams coming to the preseason WNIT, there’s a natural mix of agendas for each program. Some schools will come in as favorites to win it all, while others are trying to unravel enough questions and concerns that winning three games is not technically the most critical outcome.
Should one of the six newcomers to the 2014 preseason WNIT make a deep run in the winner’s side of the draw, the rest of the women’s D-I basketball population will take close notice. But just by showing up, there are some interesting things the first-timers bring to the event.
Albany – Winners of three consecutive America East Conference titles, going 45-3 in league play during that span. The Great Danes forced 19 turnovers per game last year, and AEC player of the year Shereesha Richards is back for her junior season after averaging 20 points per game and shooting 62 percent from the field.
Rider – Hungry to make up for 2013-14, where three starters went down because of injury. Head coach Lynn Milligan knows her way around a repair job – the Broncs were 5-53 overall in the two seasons before she took over as head coach.
Central Arkansas – Fans of speedy guard play will want to sneak a peek at the Sugar Bears, who feature sophomore guards Brianna Mullins and Maggie Proffitt. And just to keep folks guessing about where the next player will come from, Central Arkansas also welcomes Taisiya Novokreshchenova, a Russian native who has played for small colleges in Texas and Nebraska
Two other WNIT newcomers – St. Francis Brooklyn and Mercer – provide a unique flavor
St. Francis Brooklyn is coached by John Thurston, owner of a particularly diverse background in his profession. This season marks his 20th as a head coach in the college game, and his 42nd overall in some capacity with the sport. On the men’s side, he has coached 26 years in levels ranging from NCAA DI, DII, DIII and NAIA; during the 1970’s, Thurston’s Fairleigh Dickinson-Florham teams were known for their high scoring offense, averaging close to 100 points per game
For the St. Francis Brooklyn women, Thurston has proven pretty cagey in his two seasons so far. The program won 19 games in 2013-14, the most ever in its 41-year history, and won games against three teams that later reached the NCAA Tournament (Pennsylvania, Army and Robert Morris).
“The year before when we had 11 wins, we lost a lot of close games, and that was probably due to a little bit of inexperience. We knew if we improved a bit, we’d be pretty good,” Thurston said. “At the mid-major level, nobody is that much better than anyone else – you just have to avoid injuries, play great defense and shoot it well. This group of ours had already shown signs they would play well together.
“Every year is a new challenge. A first-year group, you have to build team unity and teach the basics, and the years after that you have a different approach because they know more. No two years are ever the same. This year we have an inexperienced bench and very experienced starters – that presents the challenge for me. Can you relate it to something that happened 20 years ago? It’s a constant learning curve.”
While the journey has required a lot of change-of-address forms, Thurston says he’s more interested in the impact he had on people, and vice-versa.
“The toughest thing after 40 years is I’ve had four former players pass away. That’s difficult, but at my age (66) you are going to have to expect that,” he said. “My favorite thing is having former players have kids that I’ve coached. Each season has its ups and downs – I try to remember the kids and the conversations, and I try not to remember the games as much."
Through his connections in the WNBA, which funnel player videos to him regularly, Thurston has established a sweet pipeline to Australia. One Aussie graduated this past May; two more are on the roster, including first-team preseason Northeast Conference selection Eilidh Simpson.
Simpson has dual citizenship and played on Great Britain’s team in the Women’s Eurobasket tournament this summer.
“I completely love basketball; I want to see as much of the world as possible. If I can travel and play basketball, two of my favorite things and at the same time, that’s perfect,” she said.
“I moved up through the clubs at home, and I knew I wanted to extend my basketball level of play. I had a coach who had played college ball in the States; he talked a lot about that, and I then wanted to do that myself. When I knew it would happen, I was extremely excited, than about a month before I got on the plane it really hit me, that I was leaving home and going halfway around the world. But St. Francis was the perfect fit.”
Mercer is coached by Susie Gardner, whose first season with team (2-27) in 2010-11 was the ultimate in adversity, with just seven years of experience going in from her 12 scholarship players. That familiarity with fresh-faced players will come in handy again this year, as the Bears will suit up eight freshmen and four seniors – nothing else in between.
It’s nothing the Bears did on purpose, to be sure. The sophomore and junior classes simply dried up, whether because of players getting homesick or not able to get in proper physical shape. Gardner, who has more than 200 D-I victories on her resume, just went back to work on the recruiting trail.
“I think when I realized we were starting against an SEC team (Mississippi State), that’s when it hit me the hardest,” Gardner said. “This isn’t a situation I’ve experienced, nor one many other coaches have had. There are a lot of good players in the Southeast, and I’m confident about and comfortable with the players coming in.
“Typically, I’d be doing a lot of drills and breakdowns, but we are playing more 5-on-5, because they need to get to know each other on the floor.”
Mercer will clearly need the core group of four seniors to improve on their own while easing the freshmen into their responsibilities. Senior guard Precious Bridges, a first-team preseason Southern Conference selection, said she and her classmates prepared quietly and calmly for this unique mixture.
“We didn’t really talk about it much; we just jumped into it. I thought we had some good chemistry before we even played together. Coming into practice, it seemed like we’d been together a year already,” Bridges said. “We definitely have to set the tone – this is different than high school, and we have to show them what college play is like. And as point guard, I have to show the speed I play at and what they need to get to.”
“I feel like if the chemistry off the court is good enough – on the court you might get frustrated, but the chemistry will still be there. They will know anything we say is always coming from the heart.”
One fundamental truth is, if the freshmen can play, much will be forgiven. Kahlia Lawrence will get her chance to impress, coming off a prep career where she scored more than 2,000 points and was named the Atlanta Journal-Constitution 2014 player of the year in Georgia.
“On the tough days, there’s more of us there to push each other and keep it going, or just be there. And we do have four seniors there, and they do help us. It’s like, one for every two of us,” Lawrence said. “We’ve been anticipating the season, and things moved along fast. Now, things are settling in, and it feels like a slow and steady progress.
“I have to learn how to (manage) my playing style. In high school, I could always be more aggressive. At Mercer I have to find out where I fit in and what the team needs me to do.”