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2005-06 UMBC WOMEN'S BASKETBALL SEASON PREVIEW
Phil Stern and the 2005-06 Retrievers open play on Saturday at 3 p.m.
For UMBC Head Coach Phil Stern, a sense of comfort may start to reside over his program knowing all five starters return along with three other players that have handled starting and substantial minutes on the court.
"We have five starters returning but really we have seven or eight starters returning," Stern said. "We have a number of players that have started at different times in their careers which gives us depth, experience and leadership on and off the court."
When the Retrievers entered the America East Conference in 2003, they left the 31st ranked conference out of 32 in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) and joined a mid-major conference that has consistently been in the top-20, ranking 16th in RPI at the end of last year.
The jump was sudden for UMBC, having lost its top seven players from the previous year and heading into an unfamiliar conference. The Retrievers have started freshmen in each of their last two seasons, and while this year's recruiting class may bring immediate help, Stern for the first time in the America East can rely on upperclassmen and veterans to lead the way.
"For the first time since entering the America East we are an upperclassmen dominated team," Stern said. "There is no substitute for experience. Our juniors and seniors have been through basically every situation possible, and because of that we should be much further along than we have been the last three years."
In addition to a more experienced team, Stern's squad has added depth and height, two components that should help the Retrievers become a more balanced and physical team. Last year the Retrievers relied on their outside shooting, ranking among the top teams in field goal percentage and three-point field goal percentage in the league.
With the return of senior Matea Pender, who ranked third in the nation in three-point field goal percentage last season at 48.8 percent, along with juniors Brittnie Hughes (9.0 ppg) and Sharri Rohde (8.5 ppg), the Retrievers boost a solid shooting team from the field.
The Retrievers, however, finished last in almost every rebounding category in the conference charts last season, prompting the need for a bigger front court. The emergence of 6'3" Amanda Robinson, who averaged a team best 17.0 ppg and 5.3 rpg over the final three games, along with the return of Erin Voss (3.1 rpg) and the additions of 6'2" freshmen Mackenzie Butler and Suzanne Morris give the Retrievers hope of a more dominant post game.
"People are going to see a little different style of play out of us," Stern said. "We are certainly going to stick to our core half-court offense, but because we have added some athleticism, more depth and have some players who have matured over the past couple of years, we are going to be able to go out and play a little different pace and style throughout the season."
A troubled spot two years ago, Stern's backcourt last season made huge strides in the right direction, dropping its turnovers per game average from 19.0 in 2003-04 to 16.0 in 2004-05, a total of 83 less turnovers. Now, for the first time, Stern's backcourt is three-deep at the point guard spot and features one of the top shooters in the league at the shooting guard position. For starters, Brittnie Hughes and Matea Pender look to handle the most minutes out of the guards.
Hughes, a 5'7" junior, last season emerged and showed the ability to go toe-to-toe with opposing guards while becoming an offensive threat both as a scorer and assister. Hughes finished second on the team with 9.0 ppg last year and handed out 3.54 apg as the Retrievers led the conference with 15.0 apg.
"Brittnie has solidified herself at the point guard position over the last year," Stern said. "She has gone head-to-head against some of the best point guards in the league and has really proven that she can run a team."
Pender, a 6'1" senior, last year broke out for the Retrievers, making the third largest increase in points per game in the NCAA Division-I with an 11.8 ppg increase. After leading the team at 13.3 ppg, she was selected to the America East all-conference third team. Pender tallied seven 20-plus point performances and scored 30 points against league foe Stony Brook.
"Matea had a breakout season last year," Stern said. "Being a fifth-year senior and having the experience of being in our system now for four years, I expect her to improve and pave the way in a leadership role. She is a great shooter but now she is working on taking people off the dribble and adding some things to her game. She was very deserving of her All-America East honor last year and hopefully she can repeat that performance."
Sophomore point guard Kristin Drabyn, 5'7", looks to be on the same track that Hughes took in transitioning from her freshman to sophomore year. Drabyn last year played in 15 games on the season, averaging 3.6 ppg, before a hand injury forced her out of the final five games.
"Drabyn has made a dramatic improvement from her freshman to sophomore year," Stern said. "She will get significant minutes whether it is at the point guard spot or one of the wing spots. Her work ethic is second to none and she has improved all aspects of her game. I expect her to have a big season."
Filling out the point guard spot is a local product with proven ability to compete in big games. Stacy Hunt, 5'7", last season led River Hill High School to the Maryland class 4A state finals and a 21-6 overall record. Earning accolades from area newspapers, Hunt tallied 27 points in the state semifinal game, scored 507 points her senior year and finished her career at 1,294 points. As a senior she averaged 19.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg and 5.7 apg.
"Stacy comes to us as one of the better players in the state of Maryland as a high school athlete," Stern said. "She brings great athleticism to the guard position and brings quickness and the ability to score. I look for her to get minutes as a freshman."
Morgan Hatten, 5'10", returns for her sophomore year at the guard position. Hatten, who can play at the point or shooting guard when on the court, opened the season last year in the starting rotation but moved into a reserve role as the season progressed. Seeing action in 21 games last year with six starts, Hatten averaged 3.6 ppg and 1.5 apg.
"Morgan had a very up-and-down freshman year," Stern said. "We look for some consistency out of her this year. We want her to play with some confidence and if she does that she will see minutes. She can be instant offense if she is hitting on all cylinders."
Rounding out the guards is 5’8” freshman Melissa Book, who looks like the type of player that could fit right into Stern's system. Book led her North Carolina based high school team to back-to-back Cap Six Conference championships and finished her senior year with a number of team accolades.
"Melissa is a pure shooter," Stern said. "She has unlimited range beyond the three-point line and will see time in the right situations this year."
The Retrievers over the past two seasons have been out-sized in the post but look to rectify that this season with added depth and size, allowing Stern to bump a number of his players down to their more natural position. Pender looks to be solidified at the No. 2 spot while 5’11” junior Sharri Rohde will position herself at the No. 3 and 6’0” senior Erin Voss will play the No. 4.
"As we have gotten a little bit bigger we have been able to bump everybody a spot," Stern said.
Rohde has a streak of 56 career starts that began with the first game of her freshman year and looks poised to start on the wing for UMBC this year. Returning to captain the team for a second consecutive season, Rohde continues to add more to her game and has become a strong defensive presence. Able to anticipate opponent's decisions, Rohde blocked a team-high 30 shots last year and recorded a team-high 1.64 steals per game, ranking fifth in the league in blocked shots and ninth in steals. Rohde averaged 8.5 ppg and 4.3 rpg.
"Sharri is a player that has improved and added something to her game every year," Stern said. "The most important thing about Sharri is the passion and intensity she brings everyday to practice and to every game. Her competitive spirit is what makes her such a great player."
Voss found her role last season in Stern's system, captaining the team and starting 22 games after missing the start of the season with a hand injury. She is set to handle the No. 4 spot on the court this year, dropping down from the center position. Voss developed a stronger offensive presence last year at 3.6 ppg and 2.08 apg.
"The experience and savvy that Erin brings night-in and night-out are irreplaceable," Stern said. "Her understanding of our system makes everyone around her better. Her improvement on the offensive end started to show last year and hopefully will continue into her senior year."
Maybe the most important component to the Retrievers last season was 5’11” junior Heather Luttrell. A prototypical utility player, Luttrell has started and played every position on the court in her first two seasons. Last year she drew the job of guarding a number of top conference post players while continuing to produce offensively on a consistent basis. Luttrell finished the season at 5.9 ppg and 4.0 rpg in 28 games, including 23 starts. She ranked second on the team in three-point field goal percentage, shooting 40.0 percent beyond the arc.
"Heather is another player that has improved every aspect of her game the last two years and has had some huge nights for us in the America East," Stern said. "We have had to play her at several different positions. Hopefully we can specify her position a little better this year and maybe not involve her in as many mismatches. She is a steady player that will continue to help us grow as a team."
Stern also likes what he sees in 6'2" freshman Mackenzie Butler at the forward spot. Butler is a highly decorated athlete out of Reno High School in Nevada, averaging a double-double her junior and senior years. As a senior, she set the school record with 22 rebounds in a game, and she is expected to carry that ability into helping the Retrievers on the glass.
"Mackenzie comes to us ready to play as a freshman," Stern said. "She runs the floor well, is a tenacious rebounder and will be able to put up some points around the basket. She gives us a dimension that we have not had over the past couple of years at the four position."
While the Retrievers like knowing there is depth at the No. 5 spot, coach Stern is aware of the youth at the position with sophomore Amanda Robinson, junior transfer Nicole Dixon and freshman Suzanne Morris. Still, having three players on the depth chart is something Stern is excited to work with.
"Depth is the key word for the five spot this year," Stern said. "It should make us a much more dynamic and balanced team."
Robinson, 6'3", emerged last year, averaging 17.0 ppg over the final three contests of the season. Robinson was tabbed Rookie of the Week by the conference for the final week of the regular season after posting 20 points at New Hampshire and 19 points against regular-season champion Maine. Robinson finished the year averaging 4.6 ppg and 2.5 rpg.
"Amanda solidified herself as a legitimate No. 5 in the America East towards the end of last year," Stern said. "Her offensive skills speak for themselves. She can step back and shoot the three, she is an excellent back-to-the-basket player and she became a very good passer from the high post. She has gained some strength in the offseason and we look for her to have a breakout year this season."
In adding depth, the Retrievers found Nicole Dixon, a local product who spent last season at the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC). Dixon, 6'0", averaged a double-double at 17.0 ppg and 10.1 rpg. Prior to CCBC, Dixon played at Lebanon Valley College.
"Nicole is someone that will have to learn a couple of different positions this year and we only have two years to work with her, so we are going to throw a lot of things at her quickly," Stern said. "She is very athletic, an excellent rebounder, has a feel for the game and runs the floor really well. Her minutes will be contingent upon how she picks up our system."
The Retrievers also like the look of Suzanne Morris, 6'2", who hails from Walker Valley High School in Tennessee. Morris is a strong presence inside and brings a winning mentality, leading her high school team to a third place state finish her senior year. Morris is a highly decorated athlete, earning all-state honors her final two years.
"Suzanne is one of the better passing post players that you will find," Stern said. "She has an excellent touch from 17 feet and in. She should see minutes as she grasps our system."
The Retrievers will also be waiting on the return of Zuzana Kasanová, a 6'2" redshirt freshman who suffered her second ACL injury this past offseason. Stern is optimistic Kasanová can return to practicing as early as January and provide some minutes for UMBC over the latter part of the season.
"We are all heartbroken for her," Stern said. "She worked so hard to rehab her first ACL and was so far a head of schedule. To have her injure her other knee is so difficult for us to see, but we are 100 percent behind her and her attitude is great. We look forward to her getting back on the court as soon as possible."
Coach Stern not only added new player personnel but has a two new coaches on his staff while promoting third year assistant Katie Rokus to recruiting coordinator.
"Katie is very deserving of the promotion," Stern said. She is one of the brightest young coaches around. She has a huge future in this business and hopefully we will see those dividends immediately here at UMBC.
Stern also hired John McGuffin and Lindsey Roche to the staff and both bring a competitive attitude, knowledge of the game and a strong work ethic.
"John McGuffin is a ball of enthusiasm and a wealth of knowledge," Stern said. "Lindsey reminds me a little of Katie when she got here a few years ago. She is a bright young lady who really knows the game and will get along great with our players and be an excellent role model."
UMBC’s schedule has the Retrievers taking two long trips early on, playing in the Best Western Classic at South Florida University and traveling to play Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne and Butler in Indiana, the home of three Retrievers, prior to Christmas.
"I know everyone is excited to go back to Indiana and play in front of Sharri Rohde, Heather Luttrell and Kristin Drabyn's families and friends," Stern said. "That is going to be a fun competitive trip."
The Retrievers open conference play with four of their first five games on the road but play six home games in the month of February, giving them an edge heading down the stretch.
"We open with a brutal stretch, but if we can come out of those first five conference games 3-2 or 2-3, then we will have a huge advantage," Stern said. "We do have a lot of home games towards the end. Hopefully we are a little bit deeper this year and have a little more in the tank towards the end of the year."
The Retrievers have passed the transition period into the league as they enter their third year in the America East Conference. Coupled with an upperclassmen dominated team that has proven to play in this conference, the Retrievers believe this is a year for the program to make strides up the conference ladder.
"We have a very competitive conference and we have proven we can beat anybody on any night," Stern said. "Certainly the league has a lot more parity and hopefully we have improved enough to be in the mix."