From left: Clare Kelly (the shooter), Katie Shumate (the defender), Nila Blackford (the athlete). Photos from KSU Twitter feed.
This year’s Kent State team starts two freshmen. Two more are in the team’s top eight players. All have contributed significantly to the Flashes’ 4-4 start.
Coach Todd Starkey thinks next year’s class could be just as good.
“Probably better in some ways,” he said in an interview a few days after the Flashes received letters of intent from Kentucky forward Nila Blackford and Ohio guards Katie Shumate and Clare Kelly.
“To be honest,” he said. “I’d say all three are can’t-miss players.”
To recap the basics:
- Shumate is a 5-11 guard from Newark High School, a team among the best in the state for the last two years. She was a first-team all-state selection as a sophomore and second-team as a junior.
- Kelly is a 5-8 guard from Olmsted Falls. She was second-team all state as a sophomore, when she averaged 19 points a game, and third-team last season. She’s one of the best three-point shooters in the state.
- Blackford is a 6-1 forward/guard from Manual High School in Louisville, where she was rated the No. 2 power forward in Kentucky by one recruiting service. (When Starkey praised her mobility, I asked whether she was a wing or forward power. “Yes,” he answered.)
The new players will take the roster spots opened up when guard Alexa Golden and center Merissa Barber-Smith graduate in May. The third spot came open when sophomore guard Erin Thames left the team this summer.
Shumate: A “most versatile defender”
Starkey first saw Shumate when she was an eighth grader. He was then an assistant coach at Indiana and recruiting a much older Newark player. At that time, he got to know Shumate’s father, J.R., who is the long-time girls head coach at Newark.
In the first fall after Starkey was named Kent State’s coach, he was scouting a preseason multi-team scrimmage in Toledo. He saw Shumate again, by now starting her sophomore season.
He offered her a scholarship that day.
“She had work ethic, toughness, versatility,” the coach said. “I knew she was going to continue to develop because her dad is a good coach.”
“We recruited her from that point forward. At times, I thought she was going to end up being too good for us. But because I had a relationship with the family before, I think they valued what we were trying to do here.”
A Power Five school tried unsuccessfuly to persuade Shumate to decommit from KSU this fall, Starkey said.
Starkey raves about Shumate’s defense.
“She will be our most versatile defender from day one,” he said.
The coach said Shumate can guard anyone from point guards and post players. He compared her to Golden, the senior who has anchored Kent State’s defense for four years. Shumate, however is two inches taller and more versatile on offense and defense, he said.
Like many excellent high school players, Shumate has played every position, including point guard and post. Starkey says she could play everything but the “5” (center) at KSU and can guard any position. “Her versatility is just unbelieveable.,” he said.
Kelly: “As good a shooter as there is in Ohio”
Kelly actually committed before Shumate did — the September before her junior year.
“We had seen her for a year and seen her play in the summer and knew we really wanted her for her shooting ability,” Starkey said. “But since then she’s continued to develop, and her all-around game has gotten so much better. She’s better with the ball in her hands, she’s a talented passer and solid defender.”
But she’s foremost a shooter, “as good as there is in the state of Ohio this year,” Starkey said, something I’ve seen echoed on AAU websites.
“She can really heat it up,” the coach said. “She’s the type of shooter who can hit five threes in a row.”
Blackford: “She can really run, catch and finish”
KSU didn’t really connect with Blackford until this fall. KSU coaches had seen her play with the West Virginia Thunder, a strong AAU program.
“We knew of her,” Starkey said, “but we didn’t really pursue her.”
Then Starkey saw her again this summer, now on an Indianapolis AAU team.
“I saw her play, and I was like, ‘She’s too good for us.’”
KSU’s assistants saw her play. “And they were like, ‘I’m not sure we really have a chance at her.’”
At that time, the Flashes actually were recruiting one of her teammates, who eventually committed to Duquesne.
But they heard Blackford was still uncommitted, though she had had significant discussions with teams.
“So we just jumped in full go, two feet in,” Starkey said.
Kent State coaches talked to her, her father and her AAU coaches in both West Virginia and Indianapolis. Starkey knew with both coaches from previous recruiting.
“Her dad said, ‘I just want you to know the only coach both (AAU) coaches gave a full endorsement to was you,’” Starkey related.
Then it was just a matter of KSU trying to out-recruit Marshall, Hofstra, and other good midmajors.
“She’s going to be really good in our system,” Starkey said. “She can really run, catch and finish. She’s really strong and athletic. She’s very versatile. She can guard perimeter positions, she could guard posts, and I really think we’ll see the benefit of having her in transition and on the offensive glass — things that right now we’re lacking a little.
“She doesn’t look like a player that ends up at this level. She looks like a Power Five player. She’s just some consistency and a little bit of refinement away from being really good.”
One reason the Flashes were recruiting Blackford at all was that another forward decided not to come to Kent. Mali Morgan-Elliott of Fairmont High School near Dayton tweeted last spring that she had verbally committed to KSU last spring. This summer, she was being wooed by Colorado (which never did offer her a scholarship), decommitted from Kent, then seemed to visit half the other schools in the MAC. She eventually signed with Toledo, so she and Blackford could be guarding each other in another year.
“Mali is a talented kid, and we would have loved to have her here,” Starkey said. “But we’re very, very pleased to have Nila, who probably fits our needs even more. I think things worked out the way they were supposed to.”
Starkey agrees with the coaching axiom that that two good recruiting classes back to back is a recipe for a championship team, though he quickly says that a lot of other MAC schools have been recruiting well, too.
But the coach is very happy with what he has.
“All three of them would have a really good shot at starting for us this (current) weekend,” Starkey said in November. “Claire and Katie already have a college kind of mentality, work ethic and focus. Nila is just gifted at this level.”
An earlier version of this post had the wrong name for the recruit who decommitted form KSU this summer. I apologize for the error.