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B-ball season is starting! But how to make a (formerly) losing team into a fan favorite and on-court winner?

November 6, 2009 – 11:15 AM

images The PLAYBOOKThe Playbook is an occasional series on University of Rhode Island Women’s Basketball team and head coach Cathy Inglese as she works to turn around a losing program. Check out previous installments here and here.

By Laura Pappano

It’s starting. New uniforms are arriving. Coaches of other RAMS teams that bump into staff of the URI women’s basketball team are chatting about the season. For the first time in years there is anticipation that this year — maybe — could be the start of something. But as Head Coach Cathy Inglese and her assistants — including two former pro players – prepare for tomorrow’s exhibition game and the season opener next week against Fairfield University, there remains a lot of work ahead for a team that won three home games last year.

Inglese challenged her new team this summer, pressing them to improvetheir grades. Her philosphy: You can’t be excellent on the court and mediocre in the classroom. Players responded.

Now, how do you go from being used to losing to understanding how to win? From playing better on the road to developing a fan base and a home-court advantage?

Coach Inglese, asst. coaches Ashley Earley, Amber Jacobs, and Megan Lanham, director of operations Steve Wallace, and team captain junior Megan Shoniker, spoke with FairGameNews about some of the challenges of teaching players a new system, new expectations — and at the same time building support on campus and across the state for a team that may not — YET — have all the talent it needs to finish near the top of the conference and, dare say, make it to the NCAA tournament.

FGN: As a player, Megan, you were here last year. Does it feel any different now?

Megan Shoniker: It’s a lot different. We are reaching out more and getting people’s attention, going into the community.

Megan Lanham: With men’s basketball, people go and it’s a sport they watch. For women’s basketball, you need to build a sense of ownership. People want to know the players and the coaching staff.

Cathy Inglese: I’ve been out talking with people, groups. I say, ‘We are the State University. We are your University. Come support us. We want to make you proud.’

Steve Wallace: I talk to  my friends and they say they say they don’t go to women’s basketball. I say, ‘Come to one game and you will be hooked.’ And they come and they are.

FGN: How does the team look?

Megan Shoniker: I was really excited about Julia [Barac], one of our freshmen. But she’s gotten injured.

Megan Lanham: We are excited about Megan. The question marks on our team are the point guards. We have two freshmen. That will be something to watch develop.

Cathy Inglese: We need to have some kids stepping up – and it’s still early. I think Julia could be very good. I know she worked hard over the summer and she came back ready. But consistency, that to me right now is our issue. Right now the system is all new to everybody. This is one of my favorite times of the year. I don’t care what the heck anyone else is doing, I’m not looking at scouting reports. I am teaching our players what they have to do on and off the court. Part of it is creating that strong core, teaching them what it’s like to compete, what it is like to go hard.

FGN: I understand that you care a lot about fundamentals. What does that mean?

Amber Jacobs: We break every little thing down. Even the smallest footwork matters like a jump stop or a pivot or jab and go. You learn those in 7th grade, but to break that down again as a college player and build on that to dribbling moves and defensive stances – how to beat your player off that first quick step – footwork and fundamentals are key.

Cathy Inglese:
What a lot of kids don’t want to do is break it down. They just want to go out and play. But I’ve noticed that it pays dividends with kids. We run a lot of set plays, but we also look at the fast break. We need to be sure we have smart players so when somebody doubles on the screen, they know what to do…Right now they are running to where they need to be, but not executing. Executing is knowing how to react to the various defenses that are thrown at them. There are all these layers as teacher and coach.

Ashley Earley: The system we ran at Vanderbilt was built on fundamentals. That was one reason I wanted to work for Cathy. As a coach, you can’t skip this step. What’s most exciting to me is to see our evolution. I’m excited to see the team come together. Right now, we are still a group, not a team. But we are 10 steps closer to being a team than we were this summer.

FGN: The Atlantic 10 pre-season coach’s poll has the team finishing 12 out of 14. Does that bother you?

Megan Shoniker: It’s a smack in the face. You never want to be 12 out of 14, but we have yet to prove we deserve higher than that. It’s our job to prove them wrong.

Cathy Inglese: Pre-season polls are guestimates. It’s how you finish at the end. Obviously we are hoping to be much higher than 12th.

FGN: There were also no URI players named to the first, second, third or defensive teams in the Atlantic 10. How does that reflect on your team?

Megan Shoniker:
There are a lot of talented players in the A-10.

Cathy Inglese: We are here to change the culture of what people think about URI Women’s Basketball. The players on our team have to get better, but we also have to bring in better talent.

FGN: It seems like a Catch-22. How do you bring in better talent when the program has had a losing record?

Megan Lanham:
The responses we are receiving in recruiting [for next year] are great. Having Cathy’s name attached to us is getting us in with high level players. They are calling us, they are visiting, high school coaches are contacting us. People know this is a building year. That’s been established. But there is an excitement to build a tradition and be part of hanging that first banner, to be a difference-maker in a high level conference. And Cathy is regarded as one of the best coaches in the nation. What kid wouldn’t want to come here?