Expectations high for women’s basketball team

Michael Riccio – Sports Editor

Women’s head basketball coach Kate Lynch said the expectation for the upcoming season is to compete for a national championship, something the program has not won since Lynch was a player in 2007.

Coming off a year in which the Owls made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2011-2012 season, finishing with 21 wins, and winning the Southwest Division of the NE10, Lynch said she and her team want to make it farther this year.

“Last years’ team really set the bar for the future of the program so we have high expectations for this year,” Lynch said. “They made it to the NCAA Tournament. They’ve been talking about it ever since, and now it’s not only making the NCAA Tournament, it’s advancing in the NCAA Tournament.”

Even though the team lost four starters last year, Africa Williams, Paige Decker, Murphy Murad, and leading scorer Paige Decker, the Owls were still picked to finish third in the preseason coach’s polls in the Southwest Division. Junior Imani Wheeler, who was named the starting point guard for this year, said the goal is to win the conference championship though.

“I think our team can do it this year,” Wheeler said. “We have a lot of talented pieces, so I’m excited.”

Junior Kiana Steinauer said her goal is to win a championship as well, and last year’s postseason experience helped the team.

“We know we can make it that far,” Steinauer said. “A lot of the team came back so we just want to take that experience and make sure that happens again.”

Lynch said the team always places a lot of emphasis on their seniors being leaders of the team. Erin Ryder, Allie Smith, and Amanda Pfohl, who have been with the team all four years of college, were named captains for the year.

“They’re going to be really important and they know it’s their responsibility to make sure everyone stays on track and stays focused,” Lynch said. “We need to have one goal day in and day out, and so far, they’ve been able to do that early on so we’re looking for that to continue.”

Lynch said the past off-season was “one of the hardest working off-seasons” the team has ever had and they all came back in shape, and stronger over the summer. Steinauer said Dave Hashami, the strength and conditioning coach, assigns the team workout plans in the summer.

“Coach Dave gives us lifting programs and strength programs,” Steinauer said. “It’s up to all of us as individuals to work on that in the summer so when we come back here for preseason, we’re all ready and in shape and ready to go.”

Lynch said the start of a new season is always interesting because teams lose starters every year. However, she said this year is especially interesting because the team lost four.

“We’re asking four young ladies to step into those starting roles, so I think that’s the difference,” Lynch said. They’ve been in the program for a while and they know what their job is and they know what they need to do. We’ve already had a scrimmage and we have another scrimmage coming up. They’ve already started stepping up and trying to fill those roles.”
Wheeler, who averaged 5.5 points and 19.4 minutes per game as the first player off the bench for the Owls last year, will be in a starter for the first time in her career. She said she expects herself to have a good season.

“I’ve been waiting for this for a while now,” Wheeler said. “I’m just glad I can do more for the team and help them out.

Wheeler finished last year with 50 steals, leading the Owls and finishing in the top six in the conference. She said her defense has been really important to her ever since she was young.

“I actually want to break the record for steals in a game so that’s one of goals this year,” Wheeler said. “All coaches say ‘defense wins games’ but for me, that’s what I started off as. I was never really a scorer when I was little so defense always kind of stuck with me.”

Lynch said Wheeler is going to play a “huge role” this season and she has been a “great leader” so far on and off the court.

“She knew that coming into her freshman year she would be kind of learning from some of our other point guards,” Lynch said. “Now it’s her turn to step into that role. She’s really focused and I’m really looking forward to how she’s going to play for us this year. She’s done very well so far.”

Steinauer, the only returning starter from last years’ team, is coming off a season where she averaged a double-double, one of three players in the conference to do so, and set a program record for most rebounds in a single game. She said her confidence has improved over the last few years as she has become used to her role.

This season, she said she wants to be more of a leader while trying to score more.

“I’m just trying to help anyone in any way possible on or off the court,” Steinauer said. “Try to lead by example, being vocal, giving advice, and just trying to help the team.”

Lynch said she wants Steinauer, who averaged 10.6 points per game last year, to score more this year with the team. Instead of scoring 10 points per game, Lynch said she thinks Steinauer can score 16 or 18 points per game.

“She’s a tough matchup for a lot of people in this conference because she’s our four” Lynch said. “But she can get to the rim, she can shoot the three, she’s super athletic, and she has a real nose for rebounding. We’re looking for her to step up more and she’s shown that so far.”

The Owls finished in the top five in the conference in fewest points allowed last season. Lynch said she focuses defense because Joe Frager, Lynch’s coach on the 2007 championship team, placed a huge emphasize on it.

“There’s a couple plagues in our office saying we were top in scoring defense in the country for two years, so it’s something that I like to teach,” Lynch said. “I think anytime that the ball is not going in the hole, I think your defense can create your offense.”

In the off-season, the Owls added DeAnna McCarvell, a senior from Salve Regina University, and Aaliyah Walker, a junior from Odessa College. Freshmen Louise Scannell and Najae White also joined the team.

“We’re looking for [McCarvell and Walker] to step in right away,” Lynch said. “[White] played at a high level at Capital Prep and she’s won two championships at the high school level. You can’t really teach that. She knows what it takes to win.”

The Owls season begins on Nov. 10 against Post University in Bridgeport. On Nov. 15, the Owls will travel to the XL Center to play UConn. Lynch, who played against UConn when she was a player at Southern, said it was a great experience for her and it is a great opportunity for her team to play them.

“They’re going to have lasting memories from start-to-finish when they walk into the XL Center,” Lynch said. “We’re going to set mini goals each quarter, maybe part of each quarter, and see if we can defensively or offensively achieve those goals. We’re just looking for us to play hard and play smart.”

Wheeler said she wants to use that game as a learning experience for her and it is nice to play against the better competition.

“We’re still going to see if we can get our offense to work and work on little things that we can do against a better team,” Wheeler said. “It’d be good for when we play other teams who are not as good. If we can do what we can do to them, we know we’re in a good standing point.”

Photo Credit: SCSU Athletic Communications

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