The 2017-18 Flashes. (Back row, from left): freshman guard Erin Thames, freshman guard Kasey Toles, freshman wing Monique Smith, sophomore guard Ali Poole, freshman center Amanda Sape, freshman forward Kennedy Roberts-Rosser, freshman forward Margaux Eibel, sophomore guard Megan Carter.
(Front row: junior center Merissa Barber-Smith, junior guard Alexa Golden, senior forward McKenna Stephens, senior forward Zenobia Bess, senior guard Naddiyah Cross, senior forward Jordan Korinek, sophomore wing Tyra James. (Photo from KSU women’s basketball Twitter feed.)
The women’s basketball team has four starters back from last season, but a lot has changed since season-endng game in the WNIT in March.
Practice for the 2017-18 season is officially under way, and:
McKenna Stephens, a key player thought lost to graduation, is back as a redshirt senior in eligibility and a graduate student in criminology/criminal justice.
Tyra James, a key player two years ago who missed all of last season because of injury, is back and may help run the offense as a point guard.
Megan Carter, a key player in the team’s run to a MAC East title, is out for fall semester for academic reasons.
Larissa Lurken, who last year had the best season of any player in Kent State women’s basketball history, is graduated and pursuing a nursing career near her home in Minnesota.
Six new faces are on the court, and one of those freshmen may have a chance to crack the starting lineup at some point this season.
Even more has changed since this time last year.
Todd Starkey returns as last year’s MAC coach of the year instead of a new face who had never been in charge of a Division I team.
A team that was learning completely new systems on offense and defense has nine players who know how Starkey wants them to play.
A team that had been expected to go nowhere a year ago — a team that had been the MAC doormat for five years — returns as a champion.
“I’m cautiously optimistic” after a week of practice, Starkey said. “I’m starting to see how some groups of players work together. McKenna is officially back, which certainly helps us.
“We’re way ahead of where we were last year as far as understanding how we want to play. When we call something in practice, we have players who know how to make it work.
“Whether any of that will translate to wins is something we won’t know until we start playing.”
Starkey has four starters back from the team that went 19-13 and won the MAC East last season. The one loss, however, was Lurken, the conference player of the year who scored more points last season than any player — male or female — in Kent State history.
“You don’t replace a player like Larissa,” Starkey said. “As the season went on, the team knew that the best player on the court was on our team.”
But at this time last season, Lurken was the No. 2 scorer on one of the league’s weakest teams. She had averaged 13 points a game the year before; she never had even been named honorable mention on any all-conference team.
She and her team came out of nowhere to win 13 more games than they had the previous year (6-23 and next to last in the MAC).
“Year Two will be a bit of a truth check for us,” Starkey said. “Year One certainly way overshot anybody’s expectations.
“Every team writes its own story. Last year’s was a very good one. This year’s team will write a different one.”
In a later post, we’ll run through the team position by position. But the top headline is Stephens, KSU’s third leading scorer and rebounder a year ago. She graduated in May and left Kent without anyone — including her — knowing whether she’d be back for a redshirt season. (She has a year of eligibility left because she transferred from Michigan State.)
“Just her presence just lifts the level of the team,” Starkey said. “She’s been on the court for really big minutes. Maybe most important, she brings a level of confidence to the team.”
Stephens suffered a significant hip injury in the first minutes of Kent’s final game. She still played 37 minutes against Michigan, scoring 11 points and had 8 rebounds (“on adrenaline,” Starkey said). She had surgery and was on crutches at the team’s banquet in May.
“(Coming back) was something she was working through all spring and summer,” Starkey said. “She wanted to see whether her body was telling her she could and whether her mind was telling her she wanted to.”
Stephens was going full speed in practice this week.
So was James, the 5-11 guard who was KSU’s third-leading scorer in 2015-16 at 9.5 points a game. But last fall she hurt her knee before practice started, had surgery and missed the whole season. James had also missed her first season on campus after surgery on her other knee.
In practice this week, she was working with the first team as a point guard.
“This early you move a lot of people around,” Starkey said. “And we’ve never had a specific point guard offense; anybody can bring the ball up.
“This helps her get her feet wet and helps her learn the offense. We’re moving her in a lot of different areas; she can do a lot of things on the court.”
The Flashes may need James at point. Carter, who came off the bench but played more minutes than starting point guard Naddiyah Cross by the end of last season, won’t be eligible until second semester.
Carter’s is an unfortunate story. She is a long, long way from being a dumb jock. She was a pre-med major and got buried by some tough lab classes last spring. She’s an accomplished cellist — maybe the only one in Division I. She is now a public health major. Carter has had good practices, Starkey said, and her spirits are good.
Of Kent State’s six freshmen, the best so far looks like Monique Smith, a 5-11 wing from San Diego. Starkey says Smith may be the most athletic player on the roster and could be the team’s best rebounder after 6-4 Merissa Barber-Smith. The coach also calls her the teams’s”best finisher…with a real knack for putting the ball in the basket.”
Smith’s biggest adjustment has been moving from the post — where she played almost exclusively in high school — to facing the basket.
There will be a lot more on the team in the next blog post. I haven’t even mentioned second-team all-MAC forward Jordan Korinek or guard Alexa Golden, a defensive specialist who Starkey expects a lot more from this year. Barber-Smith seems to be coming into her own as a player and a leader.
I’m not sure the Flashes be MAC East champs again — without Lurken, they won’t be favored — but it should be an interesting season.