For the last eight years under head coach Phil Stern, the UMBC women's basketball team has relied on its ability to knock down a 3-point field goal. Each of the program's top eight single-season totals have occurred during Stern's eight-year tenure, and eight of the top 10 individual season performances have been accomplished by Stern's players.
But with the graduation of Carlee Cassidy, who drained 80 more 3-pointers than any other person to ever don a Retriever uniform, as well as the emergence of junior center Topé Obajolu as one of the best post players in the America East Conference, comes a change in philosophy for the coach. For the first time ever, the Retrievers will concentrate on pounding the ball inside with the 3-point line as a secondary option.
"All of our post players have improved by leaps and bounds over the last couple years, and we have some guards that we like to post up as well," Stern said.
And for the first time in three years, Stern has more than one senior he can rely on for leadership in Chelsea Barker, Michele Brokans and Meghan Colabella, three players who have gained tremendous experience in their first three seasons and who he hopes can instill the same qualities into the three freshmen on the roster.
A total of seven letter-winners return from the 2009-10 squad, which at times appeared to be on a roller coaster ride. For every up – like coming close to knocking off nationally ranked Virginia in the season opener and rallying all the way back from a 23-point deficit to defeat Boston University on Senior Night – the Retrievers had their share of downs, as well, culminating in a 13-17 record and a 60-49 loss to those same Terriers in the quarterfinals of the America East Championship.
"At times we played really well, and at times we didn't live up to our expectations," Stern said. "The good thing, though, is that we got a lot of experience for our underclassmen. So although we lost Carlee to graduation, I think the minutes that our underclassmen logged will go a long way in helping us this year."
Brokans was handed the starting point guard position when she walked onto campus three years ago, and she has started nearly every game since. The 5-9 Brokans does not score much, averaging less than two points per game in her career, but she is an extremely adept ball handler and also excels on the defensive end of the floor, as she has ranked among league leaders in both assists and steals each season.
"Michele Brokans had to grow into that leadership spot really early in her career and has only gotten better at it," Stern said. "Her experience in the America East will go a long way in helping our underclassmen, and especially our backup point guard, Raven Gerald, who will be able to learn from Michele."
Gerald, 5-8, is a fast, explosive athlete from New Jersey who scored more than 1,500 points in her high school career and was named the 2009 Player of the Year by the Home News Tribune.
"Raven will do a great job getting into the lane for us and kicking to our shooters," Stern said.
Cassidy's production will be difficult to replace, as she graduated as the program's second all-time leading scorer with 1,627 career points, but Stern believes 5-9 junior Michelle Kurowski, who has averaged more than 13 points per game in her first two seasons, is ready to assume the primary scoring role.
Kurowski excelled in all areas on the court last season, leading the team in rebounding (5.9 rpg) and free throw percentage (.822) and ranking second in scoring (12.9 ppg), steals (35), field goal percentage (.420) and 3-pointers (39). She got off to a torrid start to the 2009-10 campaign, averaging 19.4 points and 8.4 rebounds in five November contests.
"Michelle Kurowski, through her freshman and sophomore years, was one of the top scorers in the America East and someone that we could always go to when we needed a big basket, whether it was getting to the basket or shooting the three or getting to the foul line," Stern said. "I don't want to say she's going to have a breakout year because she's already had two really good years, but she's a first-team all-conference type of player that plays both ends of the floor," Stern said.
Sophomore Kristin Coles will move into the other wing position after transferring from American and sitting out last season under NCAA transfer rules. Stern is excited to add the athletic 5-7 Coles to the lineup, as she not only adds talent, but postseason experience with the Eagles, as well.
"We're going to post her up this year, and she'll also be able to knock down a mid-range jumper for us," the coach said. "At the guard spot, she'll also be a great rebounder. She will make an immediate impact."
Barker, 5-8, saw her playing time increase drastically last season, as she averaged a career-high 12.3 minutes per game and made five starts and could often be counted on to make an impact off the bench.
"Chelsea leads by example, and she is always ready when called upon, and that goes a long way in the locker room," Stern said.
In addition, 5-10 freshman Amirah Tucker is a pure shooter who helped lead Baltimore's Western High School to the Maryland state title game last season, and she will be counted on to knock down 3-pointers off the bench, especially when facing a zone defense.
After spending the majority of her first two years as an undersized center, the 6-0 Colabella shifted to a forward position in 2009-10 and flourished, especially in the early part of the season, when she averaged close to a double-double for the first month. Colabella, who will be playing as a graduate student after earning her bachelor's degree after just three years, has averaged 6.0 points and 5.1 rebounds per game in her career, but with the Retrievers' new focus on getting the ball inside, Stern expects 2010-11 to be her breakout season.
"She'll get a lot more touches than she's normally gotten in the past, and I think she's someone that might be able to lead the league in rebounding, as well," the coach said. "She is a tireless worker."
Junior Erin Brown played through pain for much of last season, and it limited her production, as her scoring dropped three points per game and her rebounding fell by 1.5 boards per contest from her inaugural campaign in 2008-09. But the 5-10 Brown is finally healthy after surgery in the spring, and Stern looks for her to return to the form that earned her a spot on the America East all-rookie team.
"Now that she's healthy, I think she'll get back to the form she showed her freshman year," he said. "She can beat you from the 3-point line and also has a really nice post-up game."
Also returning is 6-2 sophomore Kim Browning, who saw limited action as a freshman, appearing in just 12 games, but Stern has seen marked improvement in the preseason and expects big things in her second year.
Obajolu was the only Retriever to start all 30 games last season, and she will resume her role as the starting center. The 6-3 Obajolu averaged less than five points per game in non-conference action a year ago, but something clicked when the calendar turned to 2011 and the Retrievers began competing against America East opponents, as she doubled her offensive production and led the league in blocked shots.
"Topé was probably the most improved player in the league last year," Stern said. "I look for her to get a lot more touches in the post this year and to really command some double teams and do a really good job of establishing us inside."
Six-foot-2 freshman Dana Lewis will serve as Obajolu's backup, but Stern believes the strongWisconsin native, who graduated as her high school's all-time leading rebounder, is ready to contribute right away.
The America East Conference lost a great deal of production after last season, as nine 1,000-point scorers from around the league graduated, leaving a great deal of unknowns beyond unanimous preseason favorite Boston University.
The uncertainty leaves the door wide open for the Retrievers, who will look to return to the America East championship game for the first time since winning the league title in 2007. Another daunting non-conference slate should help prepare them for the rigors of conference play. UMBC will face five teams that advanced to the 2010 postseason, including ACC powers Maryland and Virginia in back-to-back December road contests.
"I think we really challenge ourselves in our non-conference schedule to get us ready for the America East Conference," Stern said. "Playing two ACC road games will certainly leave us battle-tested as we head into America East play."
The Retrievers tip off the 2010-11 season on Nov. 12 at Delaware.