When the UMBC Women's Basketball team takes to the court in late November and kicks off the second annual Retriever Invitational the dawning of a new era will begin at UMBC. While Retrievers will be entering their second year in the America East Conference and be two seasons removed from their conference title game run that put the Retrievers on the brink of their first ever NCAA Tournament appearance, the new era will begin with a youthful squad on the verge of coming to life under Head Coach Phil Stern. With five rookies added to a cast that includes four sophomores, two juniors and two seniors, Stern, who in his first season made that title game run and is entering his third year with UMBC, has all the pieces of the puzzle waiting to fall into place.
"We enter this season more experienced than last year yet we still are a very young team," said Stern. "The early part of the season will be very important as we get to know each other, the system and come together as a team in order to compete with the league's top programs."
Reaching the top of the conference will be even more of an uphill battle than Stern's team of two years ago with a young squad that only features a few upperclassman. Still an unproven squad can become a very dangerous opponent, especially under Stern's offense, which relies on controlling the tempo of a game, something that has frustrated opponents in the past.
"Our players have been really working hard and adding different components to their game that will complement our style of play," said Stern. "If we can come together early as a team, we can become a very competitive and dangerous squad."
Powell, who was deemed the team's Unsung Hero last year, began last season coming off the bench before earning her first start of the season in the America East Conference league opener against Stony Brook. Powell set new career highs in every category including points in a game with 11 and rebounds with nine.
Powell will share the post position and be challenged for the starting roll by Voss, who opened last year in the starting line up and later came off the bench to provide depth inside the paint. Voss, 6'0", scored a career single-game high 10 points last season in the Retrievers' win over Vermont at home.
"Ty and Erin have two different styles of play in the post," said Stern. "With Tyecia you are going to get a strong on-the-block player who has the ability to go up and get some big rebounds for us. With Erin you have a tough defender who is capable of stepping out and hitting a jump shot giving her the capability of also playing on the wing."
The Retrievers will only have one of the two added freshman post players this season. Zuzana Kasanová (Nitra, Slovak Republic/Gymnázium Nitra) suffered a torn ACL injury in the preseason and will be forced to redshirt in 2004-05. The Retrievers will look to Amanda Robinson (Lusby, Md./Patuxent) to add depth inside. Robinson, 6'2", is a four-year letterwinner and became Patuxent High School's first 1,000-point scorer.
"Amanda is your prototypical player for our system with her great range on her jump shot and ability to play on the block," said Stern. "Zuzana is a tough loss because we were looking forward to seeing how she would adapt. Fortunately she will have plenty of time to recover and adapt to being a student-athlete as we look forward to her return next season."
At the top of the Retrievers' returning starters stands senior Anastasia Goncharova (Moscow, Russia/The Newport School) who led UMBC last season with 10.4 ppg and dropped 70 treys on the season, averaging 2.5 per game and finishing the year ranked 30th in the nation in three-point field goals made per game. The 6'0" guard/forward will once again be one of the focal points in Stern's offense that finished last season ranking 21st in the nation as a team in three-point field goals made per game with 6.9.
"Ana is one of our better shooters and when she gets hot she can cause problems for opponents," said Stern. "Right now she needs to work on her rebounding in order to help us in different ways as a senior."
While Goncharova will be one focal point, the other Retriever focal point will be second-year player Sharri Rohde (Indianapolis, Ind./Franklin Central) who last season started all 28 games as a freshman and led a rookie unit that scored one-third of the Retrievers' total offense. Rohde averaged 7.0 ppg and led the team in rebounding at 4.9 rpg while recording the second most minutes out of any Retriever, averaging 33.1 minutes per game. Rohde also ranked second on the team in shooting, as the 5'11" forward dropped 44.7 percent of her field goal attempts, including shooting 66.7 percent in her 15-point performance against Hartford and 55.6 percent from the floor in her career single-game high 17-point performance against Loyola.
"Sharri has a toughness and competitiveness that that rubs off on the rest of the team," said Stern. "She earned the starting job last year and I don't see her relinquishing that spot the next three years. She is a leader and a tremendous athlete that the team can center around."
Sophomore Courtney Doughman (Ironton, Ohio/South Webster) is the Retrievers' fourth returning starter (Powell, Goncharova, Rohde) as the 5'8" guard started just 14 of the team's 28 games but 10 of those starts came over the final 11 games. Doughman earned Rookie of the Week accolades for the week ending Jan. 25 after averaging 14.0 ppg on the week and shooting 80.0 percent (8-of-10) from three-point range. On the season, Doughman shot 41.3 percent from three-point range averaging 1.67 treys per game. She finished the year ranking behind Rohde at 6.3 ppg. Doughman's ability to knock down the three-point shot makes her a strong fit in Stern's offensive system with her ability to play the wing or as a guard.
Also fitting into mix will be Heather Luttrell (Kokomo, Ind./Northwestern), 5'11", who set a single-game UMBC record for three-point field goal percentage going 5-of-5 from behind the arc against Northeastern last season. Luttrell's 15 points that game set a single-game career high for her as UMBC as a team shot a school record 67.4 percent from the field and 63.6 percent from three-point range.
"We know with Courtney every couple of nights she is going to knock down a bunch of treys and right now she is working on her ball handling skills to become a well rounded player," commented Stern. "Heather is tenacious on the boards and she is having a great offseason getting into tremendous shape. We are going to rely on her to be strong inside and on the perimeter again."
The backcourt for the Retrievers is where the biggest questions lie heading into the season. With no returning point guard that played any substantial minutes last season, the Retrievers will look towards returning sophomore Brittnie Hughes (Roanoke, Va./Northside) and a cast of freshmen to control the offense. Hughes, 5'7", who missed the opening part of the season due to injury last year, has really matured a lot and is a very talented guard who is beginning to grasp the system according to Stern.
Newcomers Kristin Drabyn (Avon, Ind./Avon) and Jennifer Ferguson (Fremont, Ind./Fremont) will make the battle for the point guard spot fierce with both having developed strong skills during prep ball. Drabyn, 5'7", finished her senior year averaging 16.3 ppg, 5.1 apg and set school marks with 240 career assists and 118 career steals. Ferguson, 5'7", who has experience at both guard spots, averaged 11.7 ppg during her senior campaign and finished her career with a 69-30 career record.
The second guard spot is another question mark heading into the season with Matea Pender (Sibenik, Croatia/Croatian National Team) being the X-factor once again. Stern hopes that Pender, 6'1", who enters the season two years removed from an ACL injury, will assert herself early and return to her rookie year form where she earned All-Northeast Conference Rookie honors.
The Retrievers will also look to freshman Morgan Hatten (Potomac, Md./Winston Churchill). Hatten at 5'10" is an all-metro nominee and scored over 1,000 points during her high school career. Hatten was forced to play point guard during her high school days which should put her ahead of the learning curve already having the ball handling skills needed to execute Stern's offense.
"Matea is a tremendous shooter and can cause serious match up problems for opponents," said Stern. "Morgan also has strong shooting abilities and is comfortable handling the ball which could lead to significant minutes as a freshman."
The Retrievers at either guard spot will also be able to use a number of returnees from last year as Doughman, Luttrell and Goncharova all logged minutes in the backcourt.
Now entering their second year in the America East Conference both the players and coaching staff have a better feel for the skill level of their opponents, the atmosphere of playing in the AE and extra travel with some of the longer trips, thus giving the Retrievers an added bonus heading into this season as compared to their inaugural year.
In addition, the Retrievers have added Heather Macy to the staff as Assistant Coach and Recruiting Coordinator. Macy spent the previous two seasons at High Point University and was named the head coach of the USA Athletes International Team that gold medaled with a 7-0 record in the Collegiate Travel Tour in Australia during the summer of 2004. Macy joins second-year Assistant Katie Rokus and new Assistant Jami Cornwell on Stern's staff as both Rokus and Cornwell were players for Stern at USC Aiken and have great instructional knowledge of his system of play.
"Heather is going to bring immediate impact to our program with her strong coaching background and proven ability to motivate and work well with student-athletes," said Stern. "Her recruiting ability and extensive knowledge of the game will help us as we continue to adapt to playing in a mid-major conference."
With the addition of Macy and Stern having his second full recruiting class now under him, the Retrievers have all the makings of turning the page into a new era in UMBC women's basketball history. At the same token, however, the early part of the season is going to be crucial for the Retrievers to mold and grow as a team with so many underclassman and unproven players on the team, leaving the same question mark that surrounds every program prior to a season. Is this the year where all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place?