Wednesday turned out to be a pretty good day for coach Coquese Washington and the Penn State women’s basketball program.
The day was capped with the No. 9 Lady Lions winning 63-58 at No. 16 Texas A&M, but it also started with a triumph off the court. Washington landed the largest freshman class in school history, signing seven high school seniors to national letters of intent for the Class of 2013.
Point guards Lindsey Spann (Olney, Md.) and KeKe Sevillian (Goodrich, Mich.), forwards Alex Harris (Lorain, Ohio), Peyton Whitted (North Gwinnett, Ga.), Kaliyah Mitchell (Stone Mountain, Ga.) and Jenny DeGraaf (Springboro, Ohio) and center Infiniti Alston (Baltimore) make up a class ranked sixth nationally by Collegiate Girls’ Basketball Report and seventh by Blue Star Basketball.
Depending on which recruiting service is used, as many as six of those players are ranked among the top 100 seniors in the country.
“I am really thrilled,” Washington said via telephone after the Lady Lions’ win in College Station, Texas, late Wednesday. “The thing that I’m most thrilled about is that they’re certainly talented at every position. We filled the needs that we wanted to fill in this class by getting some size, athleticism and scoring ability. These kids can put some points up on the board.”
“They’re great kids,” Washington added. “They’re going to be fun kids to coach and they’re gym rats. They want to be better. They like to get in the gym and they want to be pushed. They want the challenge to come here and continue the quest for Big Ten championships and being a nationally prominent program.”
The class size is huge by most college standards. Washington, an outstanding recruiter as an assistant at Notre Dame before taking over at Penn State in April of 2007, said the largest class that she’s previously brought in was five players.
Necessity made this the largest class she’s had. Senior starters Alex Bentley, Nikki Greene and Mia Nickson along with Gizelle Studevent and Marisa Wolfe leave after this season. Starters Maggie Lucas and Ariel Edwards, along with Dara Taylor and Talia East, are juniors.
“In the next two classes, we graduate nine players. For us, we wanted a bigger class this year because they get a chance to play with Maggie, Dara, Talia and Ariel. They’re going to be the core of our team, so we wanted to give them a chance to get their feet wet playing with some other good players and veterans and for us not to be completely starting over with a bunch of freshmen like we did five years ago.”
Washington knows integrating seven new faces won’t be easy. She saw it first hand Wednesday. Texas A&M coach Gary Blair, who won an NCAA title in 2011, has seven freshmen on his roster and is off to an 0-2 start with two losses against Top 10 teams.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” she said. “We’ll certainly have to do things differently. We’ll have to teach a little slower. They’re talented and much like when Alex and those guys came in, we threw them into the fire and we put them out there and let them play. We’ll do the same thing next year. Some of them are going to have to play and play some big minutes for us. That’s good. It will make them better for it.”
While there may be challenges, Washington said having a Top 10 recruiting class can only help her program and with future recruiting classes. She’s already seen the benefit as the program captured a Big Ten regular-season title and advanced to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament on the way to a 26-7 mark.
“The thing about these kids is that they want to play with other good players,” Washington said. “When we signed Alex and Nikki and those guys and that class was ranked among the Top 15 in the country, we able to tell Maggie Lucas, ‘Hey, you are going to play with great players.’ That was important. We were able to tell Ariel Edwards, ‘We’ve got good players here. You’re not going to have to carry the load by yourself.’
“That’s what this class will allow us to do. In the 2014 or 2015 classes, we can say, ‘Look, we’ve got one of the Top 10 classes in the country and you’re going to play with other great players. We’re going to have the chance to compete for championships because we’ve got the talent to do so.’ That’s important to kids. They want to know that if they come to Penn State that they’re going to have a chance to play with other great players and to compete for championships both with the conference and nationally.”
With such a large recruiting class, Washington said the unsung heroes are her assistant coaches — recruiting coordinator Kia Damon, Maren Walseth and Fred Chmeil. Not only did Penn State have many holes to fill, but the Lady Lions had to do it amidst the negative publicity of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal and trial.
“This past year was challenging with Penn State in the headlines a lot and we were able to sign a big class, notwithstanding all of the press we had to go through,” Washington said. “That’s a testament to what Kia, Maren and Fred did. They just got out there and beat the bushes. They were in the gyms, talking to coaches and doing what they needed to do to get the type of players that our program needed. We didn’t let everything that happened be an excuse for not bringing in another highly talented class.”