Last season, when the Hatters won a school-record 24 games, captured the Atlantic Sun Conference Championship in dramatic fashion, and earned a #14 seed for the NCAA Tournament, they did it with a senior-laden squad that had seen virtually no turnover in the roster from the year before.
However, with the graduation of six seniors from the last year's squad and the addition of seven newcomers to the program, the Stetson University women’s basketball team will certainly have a new flavor in 2013-14.
Part of the challenge for head coach Lynn Bria and her staff is shortening the learning curve for the newcomers, many of whom will need to contribute right away.
“We are going to have a lot of growing pains with six freshmen,” Bria said. “You have to do a lot of teaching, a lot of standing around and talking (during practice). I think they are picking up things very well. It is a new system for them, but they are working extremely hard, and I think our upperclassmen are really helping them come along."
The Hatters head into the season with just one senior, two-time all-conference performer Sasha Sims. The lone remaining player from both of Stetson’s recent A-Sun championship teams (2011, 2013), Sims will be called upon to be a leader both on and off the court.
“It is a lot tougher; I think I bear a lot more of the responsibilities,” Sims said about being the team’s only senior. “It is a different role than I assumed last year, but I feel I am adapting. The leadership part is the same, being vocal and leading by example. It just requires a lot more ownership to one person versus having five other seniors to help out and contribute. It is a lot of pressure, but it is something I have prepared myself for over my three years, because I have always been by myself in my class.”
Sims has already had one of the most decorated careers in school history. In addition to her two conference championships, she has scored over 1,100 points, grabbed over 500 rebounds, and is quickly approaching the school record for career blocks. Recently, the league’s head coaches selected Sims as the preseason Defensive Player of the Year.
“I think she is the most versatile player in the conference, and I have said that since she was a freshman,” Bria said. “I don’t think there is anything she can’t do. She can guard the perimeter, she can guard the post, she can step out, and she can go inside. I’m glad she is on my team, and we are going to need her every day.”
Although Sims is the only senior, she will have veteran support among a solid trio of juniors, C.J. Coddington, Cherisse Burris and Jama Sharp. All three have been frequent starters and consistent contributors on teams that have twice set school records for most wins in a single season.
“C.J. has improved tremendously, I think her shot has gotten a lot better,” Bria said. “She has always been a great defender. She has great size. C.J. contributed a lot for us last year, and I expect her to do even more this year.”
A strong force around the basket and a consistent rebounder, Burris averaged 8.6 points and 4.4 rebounds for the Hatters last season. She averaged 10.0 points during last year’s A-Sun tournament, including scoring 13 points in the second-half of Stetson’s A-Sun finals victory over FGCU.
“(Cherisse) finished the year strong,” Bria said. “We would never have won the championship without her. I thought she had a great tournament. So far, she looks really good. She is rebounding the ball well; she is shooting the ball from the perimeter extremely well. When we put her inside, she is posting up and scoring for us. I anticipate her to really help us this year.”
Sharp, meanwhile, will have some big shoes to fill this season. After primarily playing the shooting-guard position her first two seasons, she will slide over to the point-guard spot, effectively taking over the role held by Victoria McGowan and Shanasa Sanders the past few years.
“Jama has played point most of her life, so it is not a position that is new for her,” Bria said. “We are going to rely heavily on Jama and Sasha to score for us, but we need Jama to play the quarterback spot, we need her to run the show, and I believe she will do that. She has done a good job, and she is going to continue to get better.”
Sharp had a breakout year last season, averaging better than 8.5 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game. She said she is looking forward to moving back to her familiar spot at the point.
“I have always been a point guard, but we had Victoria, and we had Shanasa, so I just played my role and helped wherever I could,” Sharp said. “Now my role is to be the point guard. I am going to step in and help lead the team where we have so many young players. I just hope I can get them where they need to be and get myself better so we can get to the next step.”
Sophomore Cha Cha Williams will help provide depth in the Hatters’ frontcourt, and sophomore transfer Myeisha Hall will bring her athleticism and experience to the backcourt. Hall was named to the Colonial Athletic Association all-rookie team in 2011-12 at Old Dominion.
The six talented freshmen joining the program this season are Stacia Allen, DeAsia Beal, Sydni Davis, Keara Finnerty, Amber Porter and Brianti Saunders.
Allen, a 5-6 guard, helped lead Lima (Ohio) Senior High to a Division I sectional championship last year. Beal, a 5-9 guard, was named the Northern Kentucky Athletic Conference Division II Player of the Year at Holy Cross High School.
Davis, a 5-2 guard, earned All-State honors her senior year at Southfield-Lathrup (Mich.) High School. Finnerty, a 5-9 guard, led the DC-metro area in 3-point field goals for three consecutive years. Saunders, a 5-4 guard and the Florida 1A Player of the Year, averaged over 24 points per game and help lead Hilliard to the State Semifinals. She was named the district player of the year an amazing five times, and scored over 2,300 points in her prep career.
The lone forward in the group is Porter, a 6-3 post player from Woodbridge, Va. Porter averaged over 27 points and 11 rebounds per game as a senior, helping lead Potomac High School to a district championship.
Bria says the team is going to have to rely on its strong defensive play, especially early in the season. With 53 percent of the team’s scoring gone from last year’s team, including the team’s top two scorers, new individuals are going to have to step up and contribute offensively.
“The biggest question that I have is, ‘Where are we going to score points?’” Bria said. “We are working on it, and I think the offense will come, but with losing so many points from last year, we have to have some people fill those roles and do it consistently. Last year, I never had to worry about telling Shanasa or Victoria to score. They were going to do that. This year, I think we share the ball a little bit more. We just have to have people want to step into those roles. I think it is going to come down to finding points.
“If we get better every day, I think we will have a chance at the end. I don’t know how good we are going to be early, but I think the more we play together, the better this team is going to get.”
The Hatters open the season on Friday at 11th-ranked Oklahoma in the Preseason WNIT. Season tickets for the team's 14 home games are available by calling the Stetson ticket office at 386-738-4287 or by going online at GoHatters.com/tix.