For a team that is so involved in community outreach and helping area youths and programs, it was only fitting that the winning identity and new cultural attitude of the UMBC women's basketball program can be traced back to a day when 800-plus students, teachers and administrators from local elementary and middle schools cheered the Retrievers to victory.
The day was Jan., 26, 2006, a Thursday afternoon deemed Mid-Day Madness in which local area youths spent the day visiting UMBC, including attending the UMBC women's basketball game against Albany at 12 p.m. With high aspirations heading into league play three weeks earlier, UMBC hit a road block. The Retrievers lost at New Hampshire, at home against Boston U. and back on the road at Vermont, Hartford and Maine. As the Retrievers returned home to face Albany, they held an 0-5 league mark.
"After we came off the road and were 0-5 in league play we needed to make some changes," head coach Phil Stern said. "We decided to return to our roots of playing a tempo-controlled game which helped us run our offense more effectively."
In the opening period against Albany, UMBC's troubles continued, falling behind 26-21 at halftime. However, in front of a record crowd of 1,312 fans, the Retrievers turned the corner on not only the game but their season, as well, with a gutsy second-half performance.
Point guard Brittnie Hughes, who didn't start the game due to illness, played all 20 minutes in the second half and had four steals, while classmate Sharri Rohde tallied 10 points en route to 20 for the game and Heather Luttrell played 17 second-half minutes and posted five rebounds and three points.
Behind the Retriever trio, UMBC stifled Albany to 15 second-half points, as the Retrievers rallied for a 46-41 win. UMBC came out of that game with a confidence in one another and a swagger that showed the next five games of the season, rattling off wins against the best teams in the league and instilling fear into opponents.
"That game coupled with our big win over Stony Brook that weekend allowed our players to know they can trust each other and can compete in this league," Stern said. "It was a turning point for us as a team and to do it in front of a record crowd was even more special."
UMBC finished the year at 7-9 in league play and 15-13 overall, recording its first winning season since the 1993-94 campaign when it finished an identical 15-13.
"We now know we can play in the America East Conference after the success we had last year," Stern said. "With almost everyone returning, that gives us a lot of confidence because we are now comfortable playing in the league."
Heading into the 2006-07 season, the Retrievers are ready to move to the next level and continue the cultural change. In doing so, they will be led by Hughes, Luttrell and Rohde, three seniors who have spent the past three-plus years playing together.
"We have an experienced team with three seniors that have played major minutes over the last three years," Stern said. "We have three young ladies that will lead this team. We also have experienced juniors that will help our depth. This will be the deepest team we have had here and I think it will be the most confident team we have had."
Headlining the UMBC backcourt is 5-foot-7 senior captain Brittnie Hughes. Behind Hughes, UMBC led the league in assists and ranked No. 22 nationally last year with 16.43 assists per game (apg). UMBC also ranked first in the league with a 1.03 assist-to-turnover ratio. Hughes personally ranked second in the conference with 4.21 apg, making her one of the top point guards in the league.
"Brittnie is back as the starter for the third year," Stern said. "She has the ball in her hand and gets us into our stuff. She has done an excellent job over the last couple of years."
As a sophomore, Hughes averaged 9.0 points per game (ppg) in her first full season, then increased her scoring to 10.9 ppg last year. Even more important was Hughes' three-point percentage increase, as the point guard went from shooting 22.4 percent from outside the arc her sophomore year to 34.6 percent last season.
"Her scoring has increased over the last couple of years," Stern said. "She is a scoring point guard and I think her numbers will go up again this year. She is also our best on-ball defender and makes a lot of things happen for us on that end of the court."
Behind Hughes will be the combination of Morgan Hatten and Stacy Hunt. Hatten, a 5-foot-10 junior, moves over from the shooting guard spot and is making the transition with ease due to her strong ball-handling skills. Hatten averaged 1.1 assists per game last year and, much like Hughes, is a scoring guard, as she shot 48.7 percent from the field last season.
Hunt is coming along and will vie for playing time as the season goes on. A 5-foot-7 sophomore, Hunt played in 12 games her freshman year. Hunt is a quick guard with strong on-ball defensive skills but will need to exert herself on the offensive end more after shooting 33.3 percent from the floor and going 0-for-11 from outside the arc last season.
"We are moving Morgan over to the point guard spot this year after two years on the wing," Stern said. "She has made great strides over the last year as far as her conditioning and her ability to compete at this level. Stacy needs to make some improvements to her game to see more minutes."
Starting on the other side of Hughes will be junior Kristin Drabyn, giving UMBC a strong ball-handling backcourt this season. Drabyn, 5-foot-7, is an outstanding outside shooter that can light up teams in a flash when she gets hot. Drabyn has been working her way into this position since she came to UMBC and takes over for graduated Matea Pender
"Kristin has played behind Matea the past couple of years," Stern said. "She has been groomed to take over this spot and her opportunity has arrived."
Drabyn averaged 4.1 points per game and shot 43.5 percent from the field with a 40.6 percent average from outside the arc. Her best stretch came in her return to her home state of Indiana, in which she averaged 12.3 ppg, shot 82.4 percent (14-of-17) from the field and 72.7 percent (8-of-11) from three-point range in the final three games of non-conference play.
"Kristin is probably one of the best shooters in the country as far as her range on the three-point shot," Stern said. "She has worked real hard at scoring off the dribble and getting to the basket and we expect a lot out of her this year."
Coming off the bench will be two of UMBC's younger players in freshman Carlee Cassidy and sophomore Melissa Book. Cassidy, 5-foot-9, set New York State's Section III (Central New York) all-time scoring mark with 2,124 career points while at Westhill High School in Syracuse, N.Y. A solid ball-handling guard, Cassidy is quick to the basket and can pull up for a jump shot at any part of the court.
"Carlee is going to see major minutes, whether at the two or three remains to be seen," Stern said. "Her scoring ability and knack to get to the basket, plus her three-point range, will make her an immediate impact on our program."
Book, 5-foot-8, will be looking to increase her role this season after seeing action in 17 games last year. Book averaged 0.8 ppg and 0.3 rpg last year but was limited to an average of 2.1 minutes per game. After a strong offseason, Coach Stern feels that Book could see more minutes this season and increase her role.
"Melissa is the kind of player you end up finding minutes for because of her work ethic and her ability to stretch the defense with her three-point ability," Stern said.
With 84 consecutive starts, dating back to her very first game in a UMBC uniform her freshman year, it is no secret that senior captain Sharri Rohde returns at the small forward position. Rohde, 5-foot-11, earned a spot on the America East All-Conference second team last year and became the only player to rank in the top-11 in conference games for scoring (fifth, 14.8 ppg), rebounding (11th, 6.4 rpg), assists (eighth, 2.94 apg) and field goal percentage (third, 57.1 percent).
"Sharri has made herself into an all-conference player and everything she gets she has worked for and deserves," Stern said. "This is the first year that Sharri is going to play one position and not have to play the four or guard 6-foot-2 kids. We are finally big enough to play her at the three spot and her ability to post up will give us some good match-ups."
Last year Rohde added some different aspects to her game, including the ability to go one-on-one and back opponents into the paint. The additions to her game elevated her scoring average last season from 9.6 ppg prior to UMBC's turnaround game against Albany to a 12.4 ppg at the season's end.
Grooming to move into Rohde's spot is freshman Leanne Crockett. Crockett, 5-foot-10, knows what it takes to win as she was part of two high school championship teams at Manchester High School in Connecticut. Crockett averaged a double-double her senior year and, according to Stern, she has a lot of future potential.
"Leanne is just a tremendous athlete," Stern said. "She has outstanding jumping ability and the ability to block shots. She also has three-point range and is an excellent rebounder. Hopefully over the next year she will play behind Sharri, learn from Sharri and eventually take over for her."
Entering the season, Coach Stern likes the look of his team with the senior captain Heather Luttrell at the No. 4 spot on the court. Luttrell, 5-foot-11, is a hard-working, tough athlete who takes on any challenge thrown at her. Over the past three years, she has played at every spot on the court, from running the point to posting up down in the paint.
"Heather is your typical blue-collar lunch pale player who is going to draw a couple charges every night, rebound for you, dive on the floor and do all the little things her teammates appreciate," Stern said. "She has developed an excellent three-point shot and has really worked hard to develop her post moves. I look forward to her having a big senior year."
Junior Amanda Robinson will back up Luttrell as she moves away from the center position. Last year, Robinson, 6-foot-3, started in 25 games and played in all 28 on the season, averaging 9.1 ppg. Over the last two seasons, Robinson has shot better than 43.0 percent from the floor and holds a career shooting percentage of 43.6 percent. With her ability to square up and take a jumper from the perimeter while also being able to post up opponents, Stern chose to move Robinson to the power forward position enabling her to get better match-ups and stay out of foul trouble.
"Amanda can square up and knock down jump shots from all angles on the court," Stern said. "With her size, teams have to respect her ability to post up and to step out and take a jumper."
Sophomore Suzanne Morris, 6-foot-2, will be Stern's third option from the bench with Nicole Dixon suffering a career ending knee injury in the preseason. Dixon, who saw action in 17 games last year, is a fifth year senior and with her injury will miss her entire senior season. Morris saw action in 14 games averaging 3.0 minutes per game and 0.9 ppg on the season. Morris best game came at Vermont where she entered to score seven points, including a trey, jumper and two free throws.
"Her ability to pass the basketball and her understanding of the game could earn Suzanne more minutes this season," Stern said.
The emergence of 6-foot-2 sophomore Mackenzie Butler enabled coach Stern to move Robinson to the forward spot and place Butler at the starting center position. Butler, who started last season as a reserve, earned a spot start at Hartford before taking over the starting duties with UMBC's home game against Albany in which she played 32 minutes with four blocks in UMBC's win.
"We are moving Mackenzie from the four to the five," Stern said. "She has done a great job at enhancing her post moves and I think we are going to be able to score on the block with her down there. She should give us an added dimension offensively to go with her ability to block shots and grab rebounds."
Butler finished last season averaging 2.0 points per game and 0.7 blocks per game, tallying 19 blocks on the season for UMBC's ninth best blocking season by a freshman.
A pair of unproven yet highly touted players will back up Butler at the center position. Zuzana Kasanová is a 6-foot-2 redshirt sophomore who missed the last two seasons with knee injuries. Last season she worked her way back to practice but didn't see action. If she stays healthy she could become a strong force for UMBC down low.
"We have seen Zuzana go through two years of rehab and never complain once, so it is exciting and a thrill for all of us to see her out there competing and practicing," Stern said. "She is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the paint because she is so strong and she has an abundant amount of post moves."
Junior Charese Baldwin also plays into the mix for the Retrievers, as the 6-foot-2 University of Maryland transfer brings a dominant presence to UMBC. Baldwin spent the last two years at Maryland playing for its volleyball team. Prior to Maryland, she played at Patuxent High School with fellow Retriever Amanda Robinson and earned the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference Most Outstanding Player honors in 2003.
"Charese is a tremendous athlete all around," Stern said. "She has picked up everything we have thrown at her in the offseason and will give us a different dimension as a shot blocker that we really haven't had here."
The 2006-07 squad is a deep, veteran-laden team that could pay large dividends throughout the season, especially with adding two addition regular season games to the schedule.
"This is our deepest team and it will be an exciting team to watch," Stern said. "We are going to do some different things we haven't done in the past. We are going to give the players more ability to do one-on-one and get the ball inside more."
The Retrievers will rely on its three senior captains in Hughes, Rohde and Luttrell to provide leadership and continue to point UMBC in the right direction. The three have played together since their freshman year and are very accustomed to one another's tendencies.
"The continuity of knowing each other, and especially in our system with playing together within our system for three years, you can't replace that time," Stern said. "It just leads to more confidence within one another and the ability to play within themselves."
In addition, the time has come for UMBC's underclassmen to begin to fill out their roles. Drabyn and Butler have been anointed as preseason starters and the time has arrived for them to be leaders on the court. Because UMBC is so deep, Coach Stern can bring his freshmen along at whatever pace is necessary, unlike previous years when freshmen have been forced into a starting role.
"We are fortunate to be able to bring our younger players along at whatever speed is necessary and not have to throw them into the fray as our past three classes have."
Coach Stern also likes the layout of his schedule and sees it as a momentum builder towards conference season. The Retrievers open at George Washington, a team that has five consecutive Atlantic-10 regular-season titles and four straight NCAA Tournament appearances. The nationally ranked Colonials will be a great gauge to see where the Retrievers are early on.
"We are excited about our schedule," Stern said. "It is very competitive opening at a top-25 team at GW, and we play all of our local rivals, which we are very excited about. A couple of them will be on television and home and it should really prepare us for the America East."
Much like last year, UMBC will host a Mid-Day Madness game on Wednesday, Jan. 24 at 12 p.m., once again lending a hand to the community that has helped the Retrievers so much.
"We have a great bunch of ladies on and off the court," Stern said. "They are great role models and a team that I think UMBC will be very proud of this year, and they will be exciting to watch."