The A10 family grew by one in November, as the conference announced that Loyola University Chicago would become its 15th member beginning in the 2022-23 academic year. The move was largely hailed as a success for the conference, who gained access to a major media market while adding a school that meshes well with the existing member organizations. With the all-sports move to the A10 comes the Loyola Ramblers Women’s Basketball program. They join a conference which on the women’s side is as strong as it has ever been, having produced the reigning WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones while hoping to send two or more teams to March Madness come springtime. What should the A10 expect from its newest member on the women’s basketball side?
To understand their program, it helps to understand its leader. I sat down (virtually, that is) with Kate Achter, the sixth-year head coach of the Ramblers program. We spoke over the phone right before she was set to travel with her program to the Northeast, where matchups with Dartmouth and UVM await. (Many thanks are due to Loyola’s SID J. Ryan Haley for coordinating this interview in the middle of the season and right around Thanksgiving.)
The A10 is getting back a familiar face. Achter coached under current Providence coach Jim Crowley during his time at St. Bonaventure, and says that she’s familiar with a lot of the current coaches. “I’m good friends with a lot of the Dayton staff, I’m friends with [VCU head coach] Beth [O’Boyle], I know the St. Louis staff really well…the day of the announcement, there were a lot of phone calls and text messages.” Achter played at Bowling Green as well as having a brief stint playing abroad before eventually joining the Bonnies.
On the court, Loyola will start with the fundamentals. “We are a very stout defensive team, and we’ve always hung our hat on defense. Our offense is just now starting to get caught up to that, but that’s part of where we are and our maturity as a program.” Achter expresses a clear vision for their future, too. “We were hired for a reason: to rebuild a program. It’s taken a couple years for us to get caught up from a skill perspective, but we will always be tough defensively, we will always be well-scouted, and we will always be competitive,” notes the Ohio native. Since Achter was appointed, Loyola has been on an upward trajectory. After going 2-28 in her first year, the team posted 7, 13, 15, and 12 wins since. Last year, led in part by former UMass guard Bre Hampton-Bey, the Ramblers were invited to the Women’s Basketball Invitational. It was the program’s first postseason appearance.
While moving to a more difficult conference is never an easy job, the coaching staff is well-prepared for the task at hand. The last team to join the A10 was Davidson, who went from a 16-16 season in the SoCon to a 5-25 (1-17 in conference) debut campaign in the A10 in 2014. Achter admits that “on paper, Loyola might not always align on how head-to-head competition should look, but we are always going to try to make it a game. Statistically, it’s always been a struggle for teams that change conferences, but I trust our players and I know that the way that we prepare works well. I’m hopeful that it translates well as we transition to the A10.”
A striking component of Loyola is their all-woman coaching staff, which includes two women of color. “It was very intentional,” says Achter with pride, “because you can’t recruit kids and say you’re invested in their development if you don’t try to surround them with people who are driven like them, who look like them, who have similar backgrounds but a diversity of experiences.” Achter adds that being a role model is important for her both professionally and personally. “You want to empower the next generation of young female coaches. So often, kids coming out of high school into college aren’t coached by women, so it’s hard for them to envision themselves in positions of leadership because they haven’t seen that before.”
There’s a larger teleological conversation to be had about the role of gender identity in coaching, but the Loyola coaching staff certainly fills a void. In the A10, only Fordham’s coaching staff, led by Stephanie Gaitley, is all women. The focus on leadership and representation marks a welcome change, too: the previous Loyola coach was dismissed after an investigation into player mistreatment. Achter, and the women she surrounds herself with, are consciously developing relationships that build for the future.
In terms of recruiting, the current Loyola team is almost entirely comprised of Upper Midwest talent. “Part of the reason we have targeted that area is that it’s rich in talent,” explains Achter, but she notes that the move to the A10 might shift some of the recruiting focus. “Now, as we transition, it allows us to get into different markets recruiting-wise. We can appeal more to East Coast recruits, knowing that our conference games will be played closer to where their families live.” Don’t expect the roster composition to totally change, though: Achter’s final note on recruiting is that “the Midwest is still sustainable, but our roster will start to look a bit more diverse in terms of geography.”
What should A10 teams expect when they travel to Gentile Arena in Chicago? “It’s a really quaint home court advantage,” says Achter, comparing it to Saint Joseph’s Hagan Arena. “We have great student support…when I have my timeouts, it feels like there are fans sitting in our circle.” It might not be an easy trip for many teams when they make their inaugural trek to Chicago. Achter is emphatic that their home court “might be the best fit in the A10 of all the [pieces] Loyola brings. The academics, the footprint of the university are great for sure, but from a competitive standpoint, you’re coming into what feels like an A10 environment.”
Loyola’s last game against an A10 opponent came in November of 2012, a win against La Salle. By the time they play their next A10 foe, more than a decade will have passed. The adjustment to the new conference might be rocky at times, but between Achter, the coaching staff, and home court, the Ramblers will find a way to fit right in.