Richmond, VA — A10talk.com has had several previews for women’s basketball this season and will conclude with five final condensed team previews.
From the top on down, this is the word that best describes George Washington.
GW wants its identity to be a continuation of power atop the conference, something which is shown during the regular season.
From a coaching standpoint, Jennifer Rizzotti finds herself trying to make her voice known. Last year’s team accomplished a lot but with a talented group of seniors now departing, it was at times, hard to find her voice.
“Last year I had to worry more about making sure that I fit their style and what they needed and how they wanted to play and I was fine with that,” she said. “They were great kids, had a great motor, had great intensity and competitive drive, so there really was no complaints. There were definitely times where I felt like I just needed to stay out of their way. This year, I feel very much like the team needs my leadership, they’re expecting it, they’re asking for it, they want to know what they need to do to win. Their coachability level is really high right now.”
With half of the roster being new, there are days that are overwhelming considering the work that needs to be done. It all comes down to patience and a belief that the process will work out.
“They definitely are seeing more of the real me, the way I want to coach and the expectations that I have for them in terms of intensity and attention to detail,” said Rizzotti.
Rizzotti’s attention to detail also comes with the departure of her husband Bill Sullivan from the sidelines. Now she has to pay more attention to things previously taken for granted and better communicate with her younger staff. The two coached together for 17 years and that built up a trust. Sullivan still occasionally visits practices and has been sought out for advice every now and then.
With so many new faces, having an identity has proven key. Roles have changed and in some cases will increase.
At the time of women’s basketball media day, Rizzotti identified Mei-Lyn Bautista, Brianna Cummings, Kelli Prange and Kendall Bresee as four players who are ready and understanding as to how this team wants to play and how special they can be.
“I feel like we have the pieces I just have to do a good job with using them and how to motivate some of the younger players to play a little harder and give confidence to the older players,” said Rizzotti. “There are challenges but I don’t feel there are any we can’t overcome.”
Each has a good chance of a starting lineup with Camilla Tapias and Kelsi Mahoney the other returners, both of whom have a chance to play key minutes.
Cummings has established her defensive identity and was recognized on the Atlantic 10 Preseason All-Defensive Team, but now will be tasked with matching that on the offensive end.
“I’ve asked her to have more of a scoring mentality,” Rizzotti. “Regardless of how you score you have to be more ready to shoot, drive, ready to get fouled and just be a threat. She deferred a lot last year and didn’t think it was about her. I kind of had to force plays on her. This year, I don’t have to do that, she has taken it upon herself to be one of the most aggressive players on our team, but most impressively, she has been much more vocal and has taken on the biggest leadership role of anyone on the team. The respect the players have for her, the defensive intensity she plays with, the drive and push she has without getting tired, she is right now the absolute model for what I am trying to get everyone else to live up to.”
Share. Shoot. Stifle.
These are the three simple words coach Gayle Coats Fulks has tried to instill in her team and the buy-in thus far has been very positive.
“We want to be a we over me team, gives up maybe a good shot for a great shot,” Coats Fulks said. “From a priority standpoint being able to pass and shoot the ball at all five positions is a priority for us. On the defensive end, we want to work really hard to make teams take tough shots against us and really slow them down on the offensive end.”
Davidson returns Justine Lyon who made the Atlantic 10 Preseason All-Conference Second Team and another prolific scorer in Mackenzie Latt.
These two have made Davidson go and have set the example for others to follow.
“Justine and Mac have done a tremendous job with being very consistent every single day. They bought in to a new style and system. They really had a great spirit to them and the rest of the team does as well.”
Another returner who has done well with the coaching change was Saadia Timpton. She has provided energy and according to Coats Fulks is “kind of our hype man”. The team rallies around her. Andrea Robinson also has shown growth and just as importantly fits this new style of play.
Also a good sign for Davidson is that its five freshmen fit in very well.
Katie Turner has taken some control early, Alana Davidson may have the most potential and has expanded her range past the three-point line since joining the Wildcats, Kelly Fitzgerald is coming off a summer knee procedure and Sarah Donovan is able to do a little bit of everything.
Donovan has played for the Canadian National team which could prove valuable for Davidson. She has the ability to pretty much play anywhere on the floor and also defends well. She led the Wildcats with 19 points and eight rebounds in an exhibition win against Johnson C. Smith.
The “we over me” process will need cleaned up as there were plenty of turnovers in the exhibition but it is encouraging that everyone already is “two feet in”.
Coaching at Davidson has been a privilege for Coats Fulks as some of how now fellow Atlantic 10 Coaches loosely tried recruiting her or at the very least were names she was aware of. She calls being a coach in this league “very humbling”.
Coming in, Coats Fulks had the strongest connection with George Washington’s Jennifer Rizzotti.
“My first boss was the associate head coach for her at Hartford when she was there,” she said. “Jen’s been great, someone I have always looked up to, she really tries to grow our game.”
Familiarity is a dangerous thing for opposing teams and no one returns more than Saint Joseph’s, a fact which reflects in being placed third in the Atlantic 10 Preseason Poll.
“We know who we are which is a good thing,” Saint Joseph’s coach Cindy Griffin said. “We know what we are capable of doing and I can see it.”
Chelsea Woods and Adashia Franklyn were named to the Atlantic 10 Preseason First and Second Team respectively. They join Candace Belvedere, Amanda Fioravanti and Avery Marz as seniors on this team.
“Our seniors have played a lot of minutes, even when they were freshmen, and I wouldn’t always say they were always deserved minutes because we had injuries,” said Griffin. “We had six players due to injury when they were freshmen so they got the experience by default. They got the experience, but they didn’t get the experience of winning in their freshmen year, their sophomore year was a little bit closer and their junior year obviously was a breakout season in the conference. We still have a lot to prove with the consistency in non-conference play with this group. They want it, they feel it, they are confident enough and it’s just a matter of staying together as a group and putting all of the hard work into play.”
Saint Joseph’s does have two things it needs to work on as the season begins.
For one it comes down to winning during non-conference play. Last season Saint Joseph’s was 3-9 before A-10 contests.
“I think it is a mindset,” Griffin said on what needs to change. “It’s now it’s not tomorrow, there is no tomorrow. What are we doing today? That’s it and you don’t look one day past today.”
Saint Joseph’s also was just under .500 in road contests, something what Griffin believes will improve this season.
“I like playing on the road,” said Griffin. “I think it brings the team closer, there is less distractions, you know what they are eating. We lost at home last year as much as we did on the road in non-conference play so we have a lot of those games to get back. There are a lot of opportunities for this team to get that back.
Please forgive coach Nyla Milleson if she sounds like a broken record, but she remains upbeat as the team continues to grow and earn respect in the Atlantic 10.
“Every year the culture has gotten better,” she said. “Do I think this could be the breakthrough year? Absolutely. We’re competing against those top level teams and winning games we need to win. From day one is was about culture, changing the culture, getting the right fit.”
One of the biggest signs of this is a new practice gym. There were days in the past when practice just could not happen because of facility uses and other times George Mason did not have enough players to complete a practice. Now there are no excuses and with a video board coming to EagleBank Arena, the support will continue.
Another sign is the current sophomore class which includes Jacy Bolton, someone who already has been named a captain, a sign of her maturity.
The class also includes Alexsis Grate, Allie McCool and Sarah Kaminski who all saw plenty of playing time last year. Additionally Dejah Williford-Kelley returns and Taylor Byrne will play after sitting out last year following a transfer.
“We kind of felt that was the cornerstone of our recruiting to really get this thing turned,” said Milleson. “That was really the first class we were able to spend time with and watch multiple times to see if they were good fits. Allie McCool has made great strides. We’re looking to move Sarah (Kaminski) to more of a two to where she can score. We’re going to really look to the sophomore class to hopefully break through that ceiling and turn the corner.”
Then four freshmen are added to the mix with a focus being on fitting the team’s mindset as student-athletes. These include Camarie Gatling who has been a surprise of sorts and has earned minutes.
Add that to Taylor Dodson who has been described as a “gym rat” and “warrior” in addition to graduate student transfer Natalie Butler and the culture of this program is set.
“We’re picked eighth which I know doesn’t mean anything but it’s the highest we’ve ever been picked,” Milleson said. “We’ve finished higher than where we’ve been picked every year so let’s do that again this year.”
It is not just the on-court student-athlete product but also the coaching staff which Milleson believes may be her best in 33 yards of coaching.
“Taj (Tajama Abraham Ngongba) has been with me from ground zero, Coach (Bob) Dunn was a great addition,” she said. “He has such a basketball mind, a junkie, kind of my right-hand person in terms of the film he watches and breakdown he does. Kaci Bailey has been a great addition in terms of relationships with the kids, getting in the gym extra, the recruiting and right now being our whatever you need type of assistant. Amber Easter as a former player, what more can you say about bringing a Patriot home? She bleeds green and gold. When you get a staff that is this detail oriented, I don’t have to worry about anyone else’s job.”
When you put all of this together, Milleson has never been happier at George Mason. If you do not believe that just look at the green and gold hearts scattered throughout her Twitter account, which she may be more interactive on than any other Atlantic 10 coach.
“I enjoy the social media,” said Milleson. “Twitter I really use for our team. I like getting the word out. It’s amazing how many people do read about the positivity we are bringing with community service, the accolades a lot of people wouldn’t see. I know a lot of people use Instagram or Snapchat, I need to venture that way, but I enjoy social media. I say ‘if it’s not on Twitter, I don’t know about it’.”
If there was one thing Duquesne coach Dan Burt stressed at Atlantic 10 Women’s Basketball Media, it was that his team was ready to play right then and there. Friday evening they have that opportunity trying to avenge a loss last season to Charlotte.
An 18-16 record would be good for most teams, but that certainly was not the case for Duquesne.
“We are incredibly not satisfied with what happened last year, I can’t overstate that,” Burt said. “We have things that we have to prove and we’re ready to go.”
Last year, Duquesne had its foreign tour and played mostly on the road during non-conference play. Come January, it led to the entire team being more on the tired side of things.
“We all woke up in January mentally and physically tired,” admitted Burt. “I was mentally exhausted. We were able to regroup and have the nice run we did but we certainly didn’t meet our expectations. That team actually loved each other very much I think it was more just a situation where we needed a break from basketball. Nobody can play basketball 12 months a year, 24 hours a day and we needed that break and took it in the summer and got back out of it.”
Now refreshed, Duquesne is determined to have a much better season and make people forget about what happened last year.
A key to that happening may be on the defensive end where Burt felt Duquesne did not play well at all.
Duquesne has lost Nina Aho for the year, which is a blow in the sense that she was likely going to be a starter, however the Dukes do return Chassidy Omogrosso, Conor Richardson and Julijana Vojinovic, all of whom had solid sophomore seasons.
Vojinovic will be the primary point guard this year with Omogrosso moving away from the center of the court and Richardson able to build upon the success she had in the Atlantic 10 Championships.
Libby Bazelak will be the backup point guard and as a freshman will receive playing time. So will Amanda Kalin who Burt stated plays like a college junior.
In practices, Kadri-Ann Lass is closer to her freshman form versus last year’s sophomore form, which was a step back from its predecessor. She is moving better around the court and does not let misses affect her as much. Most important she is in a better place mentally.
Duquesne certainly has post depth and it appears as though Eniko Kuttor will begin the season in a starting role. Kuttor redshirted last season and when focused is the team’s best athlete.
“What’s changed is Eniko’s maturity and having a greater focus with what she needs to do on the floor,” Burt said. “From an on-court perspective, she’s dialed in, focused, has a greater understanding of what we want out of her on an everyday basis in terms of effort but also in knowing the system now.
Paige Cannon, Helmi Tulonen and Judith Sole also will receive playing time in the post. The differences in the post are “razor thin” meaning no one’s spot in the post is necessarily safe.
Because of all of this post depth in addition to the increase in foul calls inside of the paint, Duquesne very easily could feed the posts and try to wear other teams down.
Duquesne has recruited internationally under Burt and the team has been able to come together with the same common goals in mind.
“With trying but without really quite being able to describe it, or how we did it, we’ve really created a family,” said Burt. “Families sacrifice for one another. We show respect and civility to everyone despite what their differences are and we sacrifice for one another so we can all get ahead as a team. We just enjoy one another. I believe in positivity and having fun as opposed to being toxic and critical all of the time.”