BALTIMORE--The UMBC women's basketball team tips off the 2008-09 campaign Saturday afternoon at national powerhouse George Washington. Tip-off is scheduled for 2 p.m. from the Charles E. Smith Center in Washington, D.C. Watch the game live or follow along with LiveStats.
2008-09 SEASON OUTLOOK
In his first six years at the helm of the UMBC women's basketball team, head coach Phil Stern has employed the Princeton Offense, a strategy which emphasizes passing and backdoor cuts.
But after the Retrievers posted a 9-21 overall record in 2007-08, Stern decided it was time to drop the slower-paced Princeton style in favor of something new.
"We're going to do a complete 180 in the way we play and go very up-tempo," Stern said. "It will be an exciting brand of basketball for our fans and an exciting way for our players to get up and down the floor. It's something that we haven't done here, and we think it will really jumpstart our program again."
Stern does not believe the switch will be a hard adjustment for his team. "The Princeton Offense, although it was great to us, is a difficult system to learn," he said. "For some of our players, it took two, three, four years, so I think anything we do now will be simpler and much easier for our players to get acclimated to."
Just one year after taking the America East by storm with an unprecedented run to the conference title, the Retrievers suffered some insurmountable setbacks that included the loss of four upperclassmen for at least part of the season.
"Last year was tumultuous at best," the coach said. "We never really knew who was going to dress for games. So it was a tough time for us, but it was something that I think our young players can learn from. Although it wasn't what we wanted, I think it will certainly make us stronger this year."
The 2008-09 Retriever squad will be very young, with 12 underclassmen and just one senior, and the graduation of Kristin Drabyn, Morgan Hatten and Amanda Robinson leaves UMBC with just two players from the 2007 championship team.
"Losing those three seniors is, I think, most highlighted by losing a lot of experience," Stern said. "You're talking about three ladies that have had significant playing time since their freshman year, and who were integral parts of our championship run. We won't be able to replace their experience, but I think we will be a much deeper team and a much more versatile team this year with the new influx of players."
Stern and his staff have brought in eight newcomers – seven freshmen and a junior college transfer – and the coach believes the incoming players have a chance to make an immediate splash.
"This year's incoming class is by far the deepest as far as talent," he said. "I think this is a class that is ready to play right away, and to me that's the most important thing for us this year."
UMBC boasts a wealth of talent and depth and the guard positions, which Stern sees as his team's biggest strength.
"Our guards will be able to score in a lot of different ways," he said. "We'll be able to run probably six or seven guards out there than can score on any given night."
At the point will be 5-9 sophomore Michele Brokans, who started 27 games as a freshman last season. A team co-captain, Brokans proved an unselfish floor general who could take care of the ball, as she led the Retrievers with 69 assists and ranked fourth in the America East with a 1.57 assist-to-turnover ratio.
"Brokans gained valuable experience in the America East," Stern said. "She is a leader on the floor, and she'll get people the ball in the right spots."
Also seeing a lot of minutes at the point guard position will be 5-9 freshman Katie Brooks. The native of Tennessee scored 1,900 points in her stellar prep career, which culminated in the 2008 Blount County Player of the Year award.
"Katie Brooks is more of a scoring point guard than Michele is, and she is someone who I think will get her points as well as assists every night," Stern said. "She probably has one of the best pull-up jumpers you'll see at our level of basketball."
The shooting guard position could be the Retrievers' strongest in years, headlined by 5-9 junior Carlee Cassidy and 5-8 senior Chantay Frazier.
Cassidy emerged as one of the best players in the league last season, leading the conference with 17.0 points per game and becoming the first Retriever ever to earn first-team all-conference nods in the program's five years in the America East. An assassin from behind the arc, Cassidy knocked down 67 three-pointers in 2007-08, shattering UMBC's sophomore record, but Stern will look for his team co-captain to make a greater impact on defense this season, as well.
The team's lone senior, Frazier averaged 20.7 points and shot at a sizzling 59.5 percent clip over her final three games of the 2007-08 campaign. She was the Retrievers' third-leading scorer (10.8 ppg) and second-leading rebounder (4.2 rpg) in her first season in black and gold, and Stern believes she will pick up where she left off.
"Chantay was incredible at the end of the year," the coach said. "She was explosive and proved that she could score in many different ways. I look for her to have a breakout year this year, in her senior year, and also show some leadership as our only senior."
Stern also believes that two other freshman guards – Michelle Kurowski and Jasmine Elum – have a chance to make an immediate impact in the conference. Both players are explosive scorers who tallied more than 2,000 points in high school.
Kurowski, 5-9, is Long Island's third all-time leading scorer and 10th all-time in the state of New York. The 2008 Nassau County Player of the Year can score with either hand, and Stern expects big things from her in her rookie campaign.
"Michelle Kurowski is someone that will impress anybody that sees her on the court," he said. "She does a little bit of everything. She is an incredibly hard worker, and she'll see major minutes."
At 5-7, the speedy Elum proves that good things come in small packages, as the Philadelphia native is her high school's all-time leading scorer among both girls and boys.
"Jazz is a very fast guard, probably the fastest guard we've ever had here," Stern said. "She has the ability to get to the basket and get to the foul line."
Redshirt junior and team co-captain Melissa Book was putting together what appeared to be a breakout season last fall before she was sidelined for the rest of the year by a severe concussion after just seven games. Prior to her injury, the 5-9 Book was leading the America East in 3-point shooting percentage (55.0 percent) and averaging a career-high 6.1 points per game, and the coach hopes she can return to form this season.
"If Melisa Book is healthy, she will be a huge threat behind the 3-point line," Stern said. "Hopefully she can return to where she was before her injury."
Also returning is 5-8 sophomore Chelsea Barker, who made the most of her limited action last season, shooting 42.9 percent from the floor. Barker showed her ability last February at Hartford, scoring a career-high 15 points when the rest of the team had trouble finding the basket.
"Chelsea Barker is someone I think we can rely on to score whenever we call upon her," Stern said. "We know we have her in our arsenal."
Newcomers Erin Brown and Tonishea Mack will hold down the '4' spot on the court for the Retrievers. Brown, a 5-10 freshman from Bethesda, Md., scored more than 1,000 points in her high school career, while Mack, a 5-10 sophomore, averaged a double-double and shot better than 60 percent in her only year at Sheridan College.
"Erin Brown is a freshman who is beyond her years as far as strength and is someone who can score around the basket and can step out and shoot the three," Stern said. "I think she will have an impact immediately. Tonishea Mack is someone who comes to us with experience. She is a very strong player who runs the court very well."
Walk-on Elizabeth Handy will push the pair for playing time. Handy, a 5-10 New York native, earned All-State honors in her final two years of high school.
Six-foot sophomore Meghan Colabella emerged as the starting center during conference play last season, averaging 10.4 points and shooting 54.5 percent during the final seven games en route to an America East All-Rookie Team selection, the first time a Retriever has ever earned that honor.
"Meg Colabella is very versatile and can play several positions for us," Stern said. "She gets up and down the floor so well, she shoots the three so well, and we're looking for her to have a breakout season and build upon the foundation she set for herself last year."
Also returning is 6-2 sophomore Chrissy Robinson, who saw limited action last season, but Stern believes the second-year player can be a strong rebounder and a great post defender in 2008-09.
Two 6-3 newcomers also have a chance to make an impact at the center position this season. Freshman Topé Obajolu, a native of nearby Randallstown, Md., averaged a double-double during her senior season at Archbishop Carroll, while freshman Iman Kennedy, who hails from Charlotte, N.C., was her high school team's two-time defensive MVP. A walk-on, Kennedy is also a member of UMBC's volleyball team and will not be able to compete in basketball until the volleyball season concludes.
"Topé Obajolu has been a tremendous surprise in preseason," Stern said. "She can score in several different ways. She runs the floor very well, and I expect she'll make an impact this year in the America East. Iman Kennedy is a big, strong young lady with an excellent work ethic."
Once again, UMBC faces a daunting non-conference schedule leading up to its America East slate. The Retrievers could face up to four teams in the first half of the season that advanced to postseason play in 2007-08, starting with perennial power George Washington, which was ranked 14th in the final ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll.
"Our non-conference schedule is probably the most difficult one since I've been here," Stern said. "Opening with a top 20 team is something I think we'll be able to point to the whole preseason."
In addition to three tough tournaments at Seton Hall, Iona and Virginia, the Retrievers also host four cross-town rivals in December in Navy, Towson, Coppin State and Loyola, which Stern hopes will help build up the fans' excitement heading into the conference season.
"The America East will be an interesting couple of months," the coach said. "I think there is a lot of turnover from last year. There are a lot of teams trying to grow and get towards the middle of the conference. I feel that we're a team that can compete with the upper half of the conference based on who we have returning and who we brought in. Every night's a battle in the America East."