AKRON Sustaining success is no easy task.
The University of Akron women’s basketball team has been on quite a run, including making a fourth straight - and sixth overall - postseason appearance with a berth in WNIT hosting Bucknell in Akron's first-ever postseason home game. On the heels of a 19-win campaign, the Zips have a drastically reshuffled roster, something of which 11th-year head coach Jodi Kest is keenly aware.
“We’ve had a great ride … 87 wins in the last four years, which is the most of any women’s basketball program in the conference and it could not have happened without the great support that I’ve had from my staff. You can never be successful unless you have great people surrounding you,” Kest said. “This group that we have this year reminds me a lot of the group that we had in my third year. We had five new players and two freshmen and we turned that program around. A year later, we went to the WBI (tournament). This group we have this year reminds me a lot of that. We have six new freshmen and one new transfer from Pittsburgh.”
Saying goodbye to another strong senior class, including longtime starters Anita Brown and DiAndra Gibson, has left Akron with plenty of voids to fill. Add in the transfer of former Walsh Jesuit standout and two-sport athlete Lilli Piper to Ohio State to play softball and there is reason for concern in the early going.
Senior guard Hannah Plybon (Orrville) returns as the focal point of the Akron offense and after scoring 16.3 ppg and making 104 3-pointers last season, she’s being counted on to lead the Zips. Kest called Plybon “the best shooter in the MAC, if not the country,” but Plybon will face added pressure from opposing defenses as they dare the Zips’ newcomers to step up.
Alex Ricketts is also back and after playing behind Brown and former Akron standout Hannah Luburgh in her early years at Akron, Rickets has a chance to shine as a senior.
Freshmen Alyssa Clay, Shaunay Edmonds, Shayna Harmon, Haleigh Reinoehl, Caitlin Vari and Brooke Kurucz comprise nearly half the roster and along with senior transfer Brittany Gordon, the Zips will have new faces throughout their rotation. Best pointed to an August trip to Montreal for practices and scrimmages as key in integrating all of the new pieces into the mix.
“We were very fortunate this year with sponsors that we were able to go to Canada this summer and we developed a great team chemistry among the players and coaches and staff that we feel is going to benefit us at the end of the year, which is when we want to be playing our best basketball,” Kest said. “Even though we’re very young, we want our players to understand that being .500 in this program is not acceptable.”
The veteran coach admitted that it will take time to have the new players become fully comfortable in the Zips’ complex system, but Kest doesn’t sound like she’s lowering expectations in spite of the squad’s youth. Having built a consistent winner and said farewell to top players before, the Zips are of the “reload, don’t rebuild” mindset and that includes going toe to toe with Mid-American Conference East Division heavyweight Ohio and a rising Buffalo team.
After going 19-14 one year ago, the idea of regressing to the mean and aiming to be .500 with an overhauled roster isn’t on the agenda, according to Kest.
“We’ve had a great winning tradition the last four year because we’ve brought the culture back of winning. For us, it’s about surrounding ourselves with players that believe in us,” she said. “Our expectations are always to win championships here. We’ve built a culture of winning championships.”
Kest later conceded that the Zips can’t say that they will be a great team today or tomorrow, but she sees that as a viable goal for this group by the time the year come to a close. If recent seasons are any indication, the fast-paced style that has come to define the program will make for interesting games, win or lose. It’s the sort of system that is demanding on players in terms of basketball intelligence and conditioning, but it’s also one players tend to enjoy because offense is the most exciting part of the game.
The season kicks off with an exhibition game against Walsh on Nov. 5 and the regular season commences with a game against Malone Nov. 12, with both at Rhodes Arena. From there, the schedule gets tough in a hurry, with a trip to Penn State and Canisius and a home game against the same Bucknell team that defeated the Zips in the WNIT last year. With seven of their first 10 games on the road, the Zips will be thrown into the crucible early on and should see how their chemistry and conditioning hold up.
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