In his 11 seasons in Baltimore, head coach Phil Stern has faced many tough challenges throughout his career at UMBC. This season proves to be no different, as many observing the revitalized UMBC women's basketball team will undoubtedly have to watch with a roster in hand. Stern's squad features nine newcomers, while returning just one senior and a trio of sophomores. With UMBC owning the league's youngest roster, it is no wonder the conference's nine coaches voted the Retrievers to finish seventh in the league's annual coaches' poll, however, if history has taught college basketball fans anything, it never matters where you start.
"For us this year, it will be where we end up, not where we start because of all the newcomers," Stern said. "A big part of our success this year will be how quickly our young ladies get acclimated to our system."
The Retrievers, who entered last year with two returning starters, soon found themselves with an active roster that totaled a combined seven starts prior to the 2012-13 season. UMBC dropped five straight games for the first time since 2009 prior to the Christmas break, but snapped the streak during its Holiday Tournament at Saint Joseph's, earning their first victory of the season away from the RAC Arena. UMBC went 1-1 to open up conference play, but had a tough road trip, dropping three contests by a combined 11 points. The black and gold returned home and picked up a much-needed victory against Stony Brook in front of a UMBC women's basketball record crowd on Midday Madness, but dropped two-straight before going on to win four of its next five contests, including what proved to be a very critical 52-51 win at Stony Brook.
Stern led UMBC to its 10th America East Conference Championships since joining the league in 2003-04. The Retrievers closed out the regular season in a four-way tie (Vermont, New Hampshire and Stony Brook) for fourth place in the conference with a 6-10 league record. The black and gold earned the third seed in the conference tournament, its second-highest seeding ever, due to tiebreakers, with UMBC having the best record against UVM, UNH and SBU and the ineligibility of Boston University for America East Conference postseason play. Despite shooting their second-lowest percentage of the season (24.6 percent), the third-seeded Retrievers would tie Vermont at 43 with 36 seconds to go in the AEC quarterfinals, but UVM's Lauren Wheeler knocked down her only try of the game to lead the sixth-seeded Catamounts to a 47-43 victory.
"I'm proud of last year's team for being able to play through some adversary and some injuries," Stern said of his 2012-13 team. "Although the end result was not what we wanted, they always represented UMBC and our program the right way."
Stern, who has graduated seven seniors over the past two seasons, including four players that averaged double-digit points and a pair of 1,000-point scorers, will start fresh in his 12th season at the helm of the Retrievers as he returns four letterwinners and just eight percent of his team's scoring from a year ago. Stern will continue to employ his Princeton-style offense with his young roster, while former America East Coach of the Year Rich Conover was enlisted over the offseason for his defensive expertise.
"Some years, things just work out where you have a predominately new team, and this is one of them," explain Stern. "Once the ball gets tipped there are no excuses, everyone has to go out and play hard and play the way we play. We need to figure out who that's going to be in a short time."
Captain Dana Lewis represents the Retrievers' only senior and the only UMBC player to have started a Division I contest. Lewis got the starting nod in 21 games a season ago, averaging career-bests in points (3.0) and rebounds (4.0), despite battling injuries. Lewis, who tallied a career-best three blocks after returning from injury to play 14 minutes in the AEC quarterfinal contest, led the team in shooting percentage (.455) in 2012-13. The veteran center will be looked upon to provide leadership to the league's youngest roster.
The Retrievers are excited to see the continued development of 6-6 sophomore Bridget O'Donnell, who will provide the black and gold with depth and height at the center position. As a rookie, O'Donnell showed her defensive presence by registering 11 blocks, third on the team, in 19 appearances.
Freshman Amanda Hagaman will also vie for time on the low block for the Retrievers after averaging 11.4 points and 8.8 rebounds per game in her senior season at Manasquan High School. The 6-3 post player has shown Stern her ability to find the open player that may earn her valuable minutes in the Princeton offense.
"We have three young ladies who all have the right skill set for our system, with Dana, Bridget and Amanda," said Stern. "Dana's experience is invaluable at this point, playing in the system for three years, and we look forward to her being a leader.
"Bridget has made huge strides this spring and summer," Stern continued. "We are excited about her development and we think it will show on the floor once the season starts.
"Amanda is a natural post player in our system," said Stern. "She already makes great reads and will be a big part of our future."
Second-year Retriever Liz McNaughton and rookie Sara Tarbert will swing between the guard and forward positions. At 6-0, McNaughton, who saw action in 16 contests, is not afraid of contact and will be a threat both from three and in the post. Tarbert has proven that she is a natural-born scorer from both beyond the arc and down on the low block as well, having led the YAIAA in scoring and being named the Co-Player of the Year for Division III and IV in the YAIAA after averaging 24.2 points per game as a senior at Kennard-Dale High School.
"Liz has worked really hard in the offseason," explained Stern. "She is in great shape and is shooting the ball really well. We are going to need her to spread the defense for us, as well as scoring on the block for us. Sara is ready to play right away as a freshman. She is already an excellent three-point shooter, already plays really well on the block and has all the skill sets that we look for at our wing position."
UMBC is not short on size at the guard position this season, with sophomore Katrina Hutzell and freshman Taylor McCarley each standing at 5-10. Hutzell, who appeared in 19 contests in her first collegiate campaign, will look to take over as one of the Retrievers' sharp shooters, while McCarley's athletic build, which earned her a 61st ranking at her position by ESPNU HoopGurlz, should help the rookie to get to the rim and the free throw line.
"We have some taller guards, who hopefully will be able to create matchup problems on the block, while all having the ability to knock down the outside shot," said Stern.
Newcomers Abbie Hein and Emily Russo each enjoyed great success in their high school careers. Hein, a 1,000-point scorer at Eau Claire Immanuel Lutheran High School, earned All-Northwest Player of the Year honors after averaging a double-double, with 19.4 points and 10.3 rebounds per game in 2013 and graduated as the Lancers' all-time leading scorer with 1,673 points. Russo makes her return to the hardwood after suffering a season-ending leg injury in her senior season at Glenelg High School. The 2011-12 Howard County Player of the Year will be looked upon to facilitate the Retrievers' offense in her first season in Baltimore, taking over the point guard duties from Raven Harris who was lost to graduation. Newcomer Marissa Somerville, an All-Washington Catholic Athletic Conference Third Team selection at St. Mary's Ryken, brings speed to the Retrievers' lineup, while rookie Kameron Ward will vie for time amongst the guards.
"Emily and Abbie are both leaders who understand how to win," Stern continued. "They can play both backcourt spots for us and each have the ability to get to the basket and knock down the three for us. We look forward to them contributing immediately. "
Junior transfers Taylor Mills and Janelle Saling provide a bit of experience to the Retrievers' lineup, having each experienced success in their junior college experiences. Mills was cited as an honorable mention for the WBCA All-America Team and Saling was named an honorable mention for the National Junior College Athletic Association Region 6.
"Taylor and Janelle are both here to knock down the three-pointer," explained Stern. "They both shoot it at an excellent percentage from well beyond the three-point line and should open up the backdoors for us."
UMBC puts its newcomers to the test, opening the season on Monday, Nov. 11 against Eastern (Pa.). Tipoff is set for 5 p.m. at the RAC Arena. The Retrievers will open their 11th season of America East play on Saturday, Jan. 4 when it hosts Binghamton at 1 p.m. inside the RAC Arena.