The 2012-13 Stetson women’s basketball poster features an acronym for the nickname “HATS”: “Help A Teammate Succeed”. At first glance that phrase might seem like catchy marketing slogan without any deeper significance, but head coach Lynn Bria knows the importance of her entire squad buying into that “team first” philosophy as the Hatters prepare for the start of the 2012-13 basketball season.
“I think a big key for us this year is how well we can play together at both ends of the floor,” Bria said. “Some people might think that to be cliché, but it is true. In the past we have tended to rely heavily on one or two players and we can't do that. Everybody has been asked to play team defense and to play it for 40 minutes. And I think if we really play together as a team, we will be very successful.”
Stetson enters the season with a great deal of optimism and for good reason. The Hatters are coming off a pair of highly successful campaigns over the past two years. In 2010-11, Stetson won 20 games, captured the A-Sun Championship and earned a berth in the NCAA Tournament for just the second time in school history.
The Hatters followed that up last season with a school-record 23 victories - including a midseason streak of 10 in a row - and again advanced all the way to the A-Sun Championship game. But the Hatters repeat bid fell short and the team was forced to settle for a postseason berth in the WNIT.
For the players that experienced both the highs of winning the championship two years ago and the heartbreak of coming one game short last year, there is a unique perspective and a strong motivation to return to the top of the conference and to compete in the NCAA Tournament.
“They are hungry,” Bria said. “They weren't happy with last year’s season because when you win the league and get to play in the greatest show on earth it is hard to place second. And what I have seen with a lot of the players, especially our senior class, is that they are on a bit of a mission. They understand that this is their last chance and they are more motivated. When a team comes together and when a team invests, the team becomes theirs and they act like it is theirs. It's been real good for me to see.”
Perhaps one of the biggest reasons expectations are so high for this year’s squad is that virtually everyone from last year’s team is back. While the Hatters played the entire 2011-12 season without any seniors, this year they will benefit from not only having five seniors, but also 10 returning letterwinners plus a transfer with a year of squad experience under her belt.
“I think this year we will be more polished and things will run smoother,” Bria said. “The seniors have done a good job leading and helping the freshmen really advance and develop.”
The Hatters will look to reigning Atlantic Sun Conference Player of the Year Victoria McGowan to lead the team once again in 2012-13. Recently selected as a candidate for the prestigious Senior CLASS Award, McGowan has put together two remarkable seasons since transferring to Stetson. She is the only Hatter in school history to be named both MVP of the conference tournament (2011) and the league’s Player of the Year (2012) for his or her respective sport. The Hatter point guard has scored over 1000 points in two seasons and recorded an NCAA-best three triple-doubles last year.
Bria knows that in addition to putting up strong offensive numbers, McGowan is going to have to take on a key leadership role this season.
“Victoria is so talented, but this year she has decided she wants to be a great leader,” Bria said. “She has matured a lot and I think she understands the impact she has on the group. If Victoria has high energy, the team will have high energy. She has always wanted to win. The difference now is she understands she has got to make the group better. She can't have it all on her shoulders; she needs the team to get where we want to go.”
McGowan started all 34 games last season, as did her backcourt teammate Shanasa Sanders. Playing her first season since transferring from Cincinnati, Sanders averaged 11.8 points per game and hit 47 three-pointers, and four times she was selected as the A-Sun Newcomer of the Week.
“Shanasa is so strong, she can get to the basket, she can shoot the three, and she is a great defender, too,” Bria said. “She can score in a lot of different ways. When I think of Shanasa, I think of a powerful guard, because she is just so strong, and she attacks the basket very well. It's very hard to stop her.”
Also returning to the Hatter backcourt is senior Ashley Dennis, and sophomores C.J. Coddington and Jama Sharp. Dennis has played in 84 career games with the Hatters and averages better than 10 minutes a game. Last season she hit 25 three-pointers and started five of the final six games of the year.
“Ashley has invested four years into this program and she really wants to go out with a bang,” Bria said. “She has improved every year since her freshman year. She is committed to the game and is a great team player. She always plays hard. I anticipate her helping us by hitting some shots when we need them.”
Coddington started 28 games at the wing position and averaged 4.2 points and 1.8 rebounds per game. She ranked second on the team with 45 steals.
“C.J. worked hard over the summer and came back in great shape,” Bria said. “She is a really good defender for us and has great size. She contributed a lot as a freshman and has a lot of minutes under her belt. I'm expecting a lot from her this year.”
Sharp, meanwhile, proved to be a valuable commodity off the bench as she provided quality minutes at both the point guard and shooting guard spots. She recorded 45 assists and 43 steals while averaging better than four points a game.
“Jama might be our most improved player,” Bria said. “She also worked very hard this summer and was in the gym almost every day. She definitely got stronger and her handles are a lot better. I think her sophomore year will be even better than her freshman year.”
Joining the backcourt in 2012-13 is senior Ashley Buis and freshman Sydni Payne. Buis will be playing her first season as a Hatter but her final year collegiately after transferring from the University of Oregon two years ago. Payne, meanwhile, scored over 950 points in her career at St. Pius X Catholic High School and helped led her team to two Georgia State Tournament appearances.
“Ashley is probably the fastest player on our team,” Bria said. “But the main thing we need to her do is to hit shots, and she can really shoot from deep. We call her 'The Sniper'. Being that it is her second year in our program and the first year she gets to play, she is still trying to figure some things out. But I do think she will help us from the fact that we really need someone who can consistently hit the long three.
“Sydni has done really well so far. She just needs reps and time and practice. She is a freshman and makes rookie mistakes but she always plays extremely hard. As we go I anticipate she will improve a lot.”
Junior Sasha Sims and sophomore Cherisse Burris will help anchor the Hatters’ frontcourt in 2012-13. Sims was selected second-team all-conference last year after averaging 11.9 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. Burris was voted to the all-freshmen team after putting solid numbers as well - 9.1 points and 5.2 rebounds per game.
“Sasha is one of the most versatile players in the league, maybe one of the most versatile players in the country,” Bria said. “She's got great size, she can post up, she can step out and hit a three, and she has a great dribble pull up. It's just hard to guard her because she has a variety of ways she can score on you.
“Cee-Cee is just all hard work. She's been a good post-up player but now she has developed more of her perimeter game. She didn't get a chance last year to really step out and shoot the three, but this year she is doing that. She can be effective in a lot of ways.”
Also returning to the frontcourt are senior Janelle Mills, redshirt junior Simone Taylor, and sophomore Jazmin Garcia. Mills is the team leader in career games played (97) and she ranks seventh in school history in blocked shots (62).
“Janelle is another player that got in the gym this summer,” Bria said. “She has gotten better with her handles, we can step her out a little bit more which has been fun, and she has gotten significantly stronger. Defensively she does a great job and it makes a big difference for our team when we have her in the game. I think she is going to have a really good season this year.”
In addition to having nearly everyone back from last year’s team, the Hatters will also benefit from once again having the services of Taylor, who missed the final 30 games of the 2011-12 season with an injury. Taylor has averaged nearly four points and four rebounds per game during her career, and Bria is looking forward to having the redshirt junior back on the court.
“I can’t say enough about Simone. She can score, she rebounds, and she always plays hard. She brings a lot of energy to the team. It is great to have her back. We can play her inside or outside. She gives us a lot more weapons because she can do so many things well.”
Garcia, meanwhile, put together a solid freshman season, averaging 5.1 points and 2.7 rebounds per game in 33 contests off the bench.
“We primarily play Jazmin in the post,” Bria said. “She is an undersized post but is real physical and rebounds really well, and we need rebounding. I think she has improved a lot since her freshman year, and I like how aggressively she plays.”
Two freshmen join the Hatters frontcourt this season, Chicago-area products Cha Cha Williams and Amena Brent. Williams played for three-time Illinois state champion Bolingbrook High School, and helped lead her team to a no. 2 national ranking her junior year. Brent, meanwhile, averaged 9.5 points and 10.5 rebounds as a senior at Homewood-Flossmoor Community High School and was selected to the all-conference team.
“Cha Cha is another undersized post but might be one of the most physical players we have,” Bria said. “She gets around the post, has great post defense, and she just is very physical. She has adapted quickly to the pace of the game and probably is a little ahead of our other freshmen in that regard.
“Amena brings us really good size, and she has a great touch around the basket. Like the other freshmen she just needs reps and time. She just has to get used to the pace of the game. But I do think the longer we play the better she is going to get.”
They Hatters will face what Bria calls the toughest schedule they have had during her tenure. Stetson will face three top 100 RPI teams in their first four games of the season, Hofstra (76), USF (83), and Florida State (99). The Hatters will also face four opponents who qualified for the WNIT last season – Hofstra, USF, Charlotte and Florida Atlantic.
“There are no easy opponents on the schedule,” Bria said. “But we have five seniors so we should have a hard schedule. We need to be prepared for our conference season and for postseason play.”
The Hatters open the season on Friday vs. Hofstra at the Ocean Center in Daytona Beach. Live audio for the game will be available for free on HatterVision at GoHatters.com. Tip-off is set for 1 p.m.