A first-day passing drill with coach Starkey and freshman guard Clare Kelly. Next to Starkey is sophomore point guard Asiah Dingle.
“Every season, every team writes its own story,” coach Todd Starkey told his 14 players as they stood in a loose circle at center court in the M.A.C. Center at 9:45 a.m. Thursday.
Starkey has used the phrase before, but it seemed very apt on Thursday, his team’s first official day of practice.
He nodded toward Alexa Golden, the four-year starter who has moved into a graduate assistant role with the team.
“Last year Lex and Merissa (Barber-Smith, last season’s other senior) stood where you are,” Starkey went on. “It happens fast. A blink and it will be gone.
“Don’t squander it.”
And with that started the 2019-20 women’s basketball season, one that brings much promise. The Flashes return four starters and 83.4 percent of their scoring from a 20-13 season. They have three promising freshmen, two of whom could well be in the starting lineup their first game at Duquesne Nov. 5.
The goal, said senior Megan Carter, the team’s leading scorer last year, is simple.
“A MAC title,” she said after practice.
It’s certainly within the realm of possibility. The Flashes were fifth in the Mid-American Conference last season. Of the four teams ahead of them, only Ohio (27-8 last season) has more firepower returning. Central Michigan and Buffalo, last season’s divisional champions, had major graduation losses. Miami has its two best players back but graduated three other starters and lost its coach to Marquette.
Other teams, especially Northern Illinois and Ball State, looked to be improved. But Kent State is as good a bet as any for the top four spots, which earn a bye at the MAC Tournament.
But, as Starkey reminded his team Thursday, that’s almost six months away.
“It’s three-and-a-half weeks until our first game,” he said. “It will happen quickly — and we’re not ready. We need the practice.”
So the Flashes set to work. In the two hours, the team:
- Put up a lot of shots in fast-moving drills. Sometimes they’d hit five 3-point baskets in a row, then miss five 15 seconds later. But there is no doubt that this team has shooters, and they’ve been working on improving.
- Worked for a long time on “back screen defense” — a way to stop opposing teams from freeing a shooter by running her by another player. (It’s basic basketball, but I still understood only about 30 percent of what Starkey was saying.)
- Ran their half-court offense — not hugely different than what we saw last season — with a lot of different combinations of players.
- Introduced the basic 1-3-1 defense with variations — for example, a post in the center, or a point guard in the center.
- Hit five of six free throws at the end of practice to avoid having to run sprints.
“We’re still very young,” Starkey said. (There are likely to be four sophomore and three freshmen among its top nine or 10 players.}
“So you saw a lot of teaching today,” he said. “There was a lot of talking and teaching and breaking down stuff. We’re going to need to be about that for the next two to three weeks.”
NCAA rules allowed the Flashes to practice four hours a week this summer — with more time before and during the team’s exhibition tour to Vancouver, Canada, in August. Starkey and his assistants emphasized individual work.
“Our assistant coaches did a phenomenal job of helping every player’s individual skill set,” he said. “But from a team defensive standpoint, we need time and reps.”
(For the record, the coach said almost exactly the same thing a year ago, and defense turned out to be the team’s strength.)
I’ve got a lot more from the practice, the Starkey interview and brief chats with four key players. I’ll be adding posts for the next few days.
But let’s give the last word on the first day to Starkey, who’s seen 21 seasons begin as a coach.
“It’s always new,” he said. “New practice gear, new shoes, and always a new level of excitement.”