Head Coach Phil Stern enters his 16th season at the helm of the UMBC women's basketball team, looking to continue the success the program has experienced in recent seasons. Last year, the Retrievers finished at 15-16, 10-6 AE, finishing the regular season in third place in the America East. The team won ten of 11 games during the season to help the Retrievers earn their second straight WBI bid, hosting Brown at the RAC in late March.
UMBC loses the services of guard Taylor McCarley and forward Pandora Wilson, who both graduated this past May. However, the Retrievers return nine players from last year's squad, including four sophomores who saw significant minutes as freshmen. Coach Stern knows that the minutes they played last year will help immensely this year.
"We had a lot of injuries early in the year last year. Our freshman last year gained a lot of experience last season playing significant minutes. I am looking forward to seeing them progress this year," Stern said of his sophomore class.
Five seniors will look to lead the team this year, led by captains Carly Harris (Glenshaw, Pa./Shaler Area) and America East All-Conference Third Team performer Laura Castaldo (West Nyack, N.Y./Clarkstown South).
"Carly is one of our three captains. She is a tremendous leader who always leads by example," Stern said of the four-year guard.
An interior and perimeter threat, Castaldo comes back for her senior season after earning a spot on the all-conference third team a year ago. She increased her season scoring average to 11.3 points per game, collecting 4.0 rebounds per contest.
"Laura is the heart and soul of this team. She is one of the toughest players in our conference. She always wants the ball in big spots, and she is someone we can turn to in tough situations."
Joining Harris and Castaldo are forward Lakiah Sims (Riverdale, Ga./Charles Drew/Palm Beach State), guard Brittani Burgess (White Plains, Md./St. Mary's Ryken), and forward Chukwuma Chiamaka (Lagos, Nigeria/Eastern Arizona College). Both Sims and Burgess saw minutes last year with Sims playing in 25 games before an injury ended her season. She averaged 4.9 points per game, grabbing 4.9 rebounds per contest. Burgess saw limited minutes, but is on pace to play a bigger role this year.
"Lakiah understands the game well and is a great passer out of the post. Brittani can play multiple positions and is one of the better athletes in our league," Stern said.
Chiamaka has been marred by injury during her time in Baltimore, but the Retriever mentor is excited to see what she can do now that she is fully healthy.
"We are excited to have CC (Chiamaka) back, and we are excited for the fans to see the enthusiasm and passion that she plays with."
The Retriever sophomore class saw significant minutes a year ago, and one of those sophomores that saw substantial playing time is Te'yJah Oliver (Clinton, Md./Riverdale Baptist), who averaged just under 30 minutes per game last year. The guard averaged 7.7 points per game, playing in 30 games as a freshman. Classmates Tyler Moore (Portsmouth, Va./Norfolk Academy), Allison McGrath (South Park, Pa./South Park) and Lucrezia Costa (Rome, Italy) will all bring valuable experience into the season.
"Te'yJah is poised to have a breakout year. She is one of the better offensive players in the league, becoming more acclimated to the college game. Both Tyler and Allison are guards who can shoot the ball extremely well," Stern said. "Lucrezia has improved vastly from last year to now. She has worked hard to work on her defense this offseason," Stern said of Costa.
Moore, McGrath and Costa combined to average 5.6 points per game as freshmen and the shooting duo banged home a total of 86 treys.
To help bolster his roster, Stern has brought in six freshmen who have pedigrees of winning at the high school level. One of these newcomers, Jen Gast (Baltimore, Md./Catonsville), played right across the street at Catonsville High School. Gast helped the Comets win the Maryland 4A state championship last spring, and will be the first player from the school to suit up for the Retrievers.
"Jen is the first person from Catonsville High School to play for us. We are excited to keep her local, and have the community come out to see her play. She is a good passer who can play multiple positions and has good range shooting," Stern said.
Three freshmen come to Baltimore after having played with and against each other for the past few years. Melody Van Ness (Somerville, N.J./Somerville), Janee'a Summers (Bound Brook, N.J./Bound Brook), and Natalia Louhisdon (Monmouth Junction, N.J./South Brunswick) all played together on Team Miller Lightning AAU.
"Melody is a fast, skilled point guard who can score in different ways. She fits in well with our system. Janee'a is a winner who is tough as nails. She works hard, and can achieve great things during her career. Natalia is coming off a knee injury last year and is getting better every day, getting back into game form," Stern said of the trio.
Joining those four are fellow New Jersian O'lesheya Braxton (Paterson, N.J./Paterson Kennedy) and Kristen Teklits (New Fairfield, Conn./New Fairfield). Braxton will redshirt this season, while Teklits adds depth to the guard position. Teklits helped New Fairfield to a Connecticut state championship, scoring 15 of the team's 25 points in the first half, including a buzzer beater.
"O'lesheya is a multi-faceted player who can play at any position. Kristen is a good shooter, who plays a similar game to Allison McGrath," Stern said.
This team opens the season with a New York road swing against a pair of formidable foes in Fordham and Hofstra. UMBC will play three A10 teams, two CAA teams, and two Ivy League schools in non-conference action. Coach Stern knows these teams will only help the team come conference time.
"The non-conference portion of our schedule features some tough tests and is very competitive. Our opening trip to New York will challenge us on the court, and bringing in teams like Denver will be a good change. Heading to the Navy Tournament is a good opportunity for the girls, as all our non-conference games will help us come conference season," Stern said of the non-conference.
The America East has been dominated in recent years by Albany, who won their sixth straight conference title last March. New Hampshire won the regular season title, going 15-1 in conference play. The Wildcats return a majority of the team from a year ago, but Stern knows that the conference can be won by any one of the nine teams.
"New Hampshire returns a lot from a team that had a great season a year ago. Albany returns a lot of experience, and Binghamton has two first preseason all-conference players," Stern said. "At the end of the day, we want to be playing our best basketball at the end of the season, and just give ourselves a chance to be in the mix."
This year marks a big change for UMBC, as the new Event Center is online to open this winter. There is a palpable buzz around the community about the new arena, and Stern is looking forward to the new space opening, but say the RAC will always be a part of him.
"I feel nostalgic about leaving the RAC after calling it home for 15 years. There have been a lot of great memories in this building, but we are looking forward and are excited to open the Event Center," Stern said of the inevitable move to the Event Center.
The program has seen a resurgence of success in recent years, advancing to the WBI Tournament the past two years. The ultimate goal still remains to win the America East Tournament and earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007, and the mix of young and experienced players on this year's squad has the Retrievers in good position to make a serious bid.