UMBC Women's basketball head coach Phil Stern will lead his team into the season picked second in the preseason coaches' poll, the second highest under Stern's tutelage after the 2011 reigning America East champions were picked to finish first. The team finished last season at 18-14 overall and 8-8 in America East play.
"We embrace being picked high in the preseason poll because it means we did something right the previous year," Stern said. "But, our players know that we have a lot of work to do and that this conference is very competitive."
Last year, the Retrievers returned to the postseason for the first time since the WNIT in 2011 when UMBC hosted the WBI Tournament and picked up the program's first tournament win with a 61-49 victory over Fairfield.
"It was great for last year's team to get the WBI bid, then host it, and then to win a game – they've now made some memories of their own here and we don't have to reference the older teams now," Stern said. "It makes them hungrier to get to a championship game or play to go to the NCAA tournament and it lets them see that the team as a whole has gotten better over the last two or three years."
This season, UMBC will renew rivalries with six local teams, including facing Maryland for the first time since 2011. While adding the Terrapins to the schedule gives the team experience playing a Power 5 team, Stern believes that playing UMES, Towson, Morgan State, Loyola, and Coppin State betters the culture of the area's women's basketball programs.
"Renewing all of our local rivalries every year is really helpful to Baltimore women's basketball in general, that's why we play those games. And obviously there's an abundance of schools in the area to do that against," Stern said. "Putting Maryland back on the schedule was so our upperclassmen get the chance to play down there and see what experience is like."
Stern's squad returns nine letterwinners from a season ago with the departures of two starters in Capree Garner and Liz McNaughton. Even with six newcomers added to the roster this season, the leadership that is evident on the team can be attributed to the players who are continuing their careers at UMBC.
"Having an experienced team and having young ladies that have played in pressure situations, and have played three and four years here only helps us as we get into the tough part of the season," Stern said. "Everyone knows what to expect and it's easier for the young players to come to UMBC knowing they have the veteran leadership to look to."
McCarley picked up America East first team All-Conference and All-Defensive Team honors after finishing the season ranked sixth in scoring (15.0 points per game), second in assists (5.1), and fourth in steals (2.5) amongst league players. She also broke the program record for free throws made (400) and free throws attempted (565) in a career, while also scoring her 1,000th point on February 20 against Vermont. McCarley was tabbed to the preseason America East All-Conference team this season.
"Taylor is as talented as any kid at our level and understands the game more than most players in women's basketball," Stern said. "She gets the ball where it needs to go on almost every play and is an unselfish player. Her leadership will be integral to us achieving all of our goals this year."
Russo enters her senior campaign after starting in 15 games for the Retrievers and helping to contribute in UMBC's win against Fairfield in the WBI Tournament.
"You won't find anyone who works harder than Emily, is a better teammate than Emily, and understands how intangibles win basketball games," Stern said. "Having two point guards be captains is every coach's dream and we're able to have that this year."
At the wing position, Wilson returns after being tabbed to the All-Conference second team last season. Wilson finished 2015-16 ranked a spot behind McCarley in scoring (14.6 points per game), while ranking sixth in rebounds (7.4); she also led the Retrievers with 230 total rebounds. Like her high school teammate McCarley, Wilson also earned preseason All-Conference team honors.
"Pandora is such a great leader for us. She is a tough player for our opponents to guard, whether it's on the block or facing the basket. But her leadership qualities are what set her apart from everyone else."
Another senior returning for Stern is New Jersey native Amanda Hagaman, who plays primarily at the center position. Last season, Hagaman started in 30 of her 32 games played and averaged 4.5 per game and recorded 31 steals.
"Amanda knows our offense inside and out, she knows exactly where the ball should be and when," Stern said. "As a senior, someone who leads by example and never misses a sprint, never sits out a practice, and she's always there to help the younger players."
The final senior on the team, Chukwuma Chiamaka, or CC as she is affectionately called by her teammates, enters her second season with UMBC after playing in 21 games during the 2015-16 and recorded a double-double against Columbia. While CC has been battling an injury during the early months, Stern believes she's a huge source of inspiration to the team.
"CC was injured during this preseason. She will be a major contributor to our program when healthy and her enthusiasm every day is infectious in practice," Stern said.
The junior class for Stern is studded by two returners and two new faces to the lineup. Laura Castaldo started in 29 games last season for the Retrievers and ranked fourth on the team with 7.6 points per game as a wing player.
"Laura improved in all categories last year as a sophomore and as a starter for us," Stern said. "The intangibles that she brings to every game makes me very comfortable with her on the court, whether it's guarding the other team's best player or running down a rebound. She also has an amazing level of intensity."
Carly Harris also returns for UMBC at the guard position, where she saw action in 14 games for the Black and Gold last season.
"Carly is someone who comes to practice every day ready to work. We're really excited for her to have a great junior year and contribute on the floor when called upon," Stern said.
Brittani Burgess, a transfer from VCU, is poised to make her debut for the Retrievers after sitting out last season.
"Brittani is a tremendous athlete: she can run, jump, everything you would look for in a basketball player. She's becoming a great player as well, learning how to play the game at different speeds and has improved her range on her jump shot," Stern said. "I'm excited that she's healthy and I'm ready for her to be back on the court."
Lakiah "Shaq" Sims joins UMBC after spending two years at Palm Beach State College, where she ranked third in the National Junior College Athletic Association in rebounds per game with 14.1 and had nine consecutive double-doubles for the Panthers. Stern believes that her experience at the JUCO level will benefit here at UMBC.
"Lakiah is an excellent passer and reads the defense really well," Stern said. "As a junior college kid, she's had the experience where she's played in some big games and is already picking up our system pretty quickly."
The freshmen class this season is stacked with players that Stern believes could make an immediate impact on the court. Tyler Moore, a 5-9 guard from Portsmouth, Va. was a 1,000-point scorer at Norfolk Academy, while also picking up MVP honors twice and a two-time All-Conference first team honoree.
"Tyler will play a few different spots for us, but she'll see time at guard. She's a freshman who is ready to play for us right away, physically, mentally and skill wise," Stern said. "She's done a great job in her first few months here and I'm sure our fans will be excited to watch her play."
Another guard, Te'yJah Oliver was an All-SMAC first team selection at Riverdale Baptist while also helping the team to the Dick's Sporting Good's High School National Tournament. The 5-8 Clinton, Md. native scored 325 points as a senior, including a career-high 26 against Archbishop Spalding.
"Te'yJah will also play a few different spots for us, but at the guard position, if she's open she'll be able to knock it down," Stern said. "She gets to the basket and has all the skill sets to contribute immediately."
The wing position sees two freshmen enter the mix with Allison McGrath and Lucrezia Costa. McGrath, a South Park, Pa. native tallied 1,371 points in her years at South Park High School, while also earning PIAA All-State honors during her sophomore and junior campaigns.
"Alli is a pure shooter that doesn't need a lot of room or time to get her shot off, and is doing a great job of understanding what her role is at this point."
Costa joins the Retrievers from Rome, Italy after playing for the 2016 FIBA U-20 Women's European Championship – Division A and Battipaglia teams. She also helped the team win the Italian Title in March after battling back from being down 16 in the beginning of the fourth quarter and won a U-20 Italian Championship.
"We are thrilled with Lucrezia's skill level, her ability to put the ball in the basket, whether it's on the block or facing up," Stern said. "As she continues to learn our system, she'll be someone who can contribute immediately."
Kayla Hinderlie rounds out the center position for UMBC. The 6-2 Silver Spring, Md.-native earned PVAC Player of the Year honors as a junior and helped Edmund Burke School to a PVAC conference tournament semifinal appearance in 2015. While Hinderlie has been battling through an injury during the preseason, Stern is "really excited about her getting healthy" and out onto the court.
In the preseason coaches' poll, UMBC received 53 votes and two first place votes after finishing 18-14 overall and 8-8 in league play in 2015-16, for a third place finish. Five-time defending league champion Albany Great Danes were picked as the preseason favorites, earning five of the nine first place votes and 60 points overall. After a trip to the championship game last year, Maine earned two first-place votes and 51 total points to follow UMBC.
UMBC opens the 2016-17 schedule with a trip to the Big Apple to face Columbia on Nov. 11 before returning home for a four-game homestand. America East action begins for the Retrievers on January 4 in Vestal, N.Y. when they visit Binghamton.
The quarterfinals and semifinals of the America East Championships are set to be held at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland, Maine on March 4-5, followed by the championship game on March 10, hosted by the highest remaining seed.