Coquese Washington jokes that her middle name is going to be “Job” this season.
With eight new faces in the program, the Penn State women’s basketball coach is going to need the kind of patience that was displayed by the Old Testament character.
“Don’t call me, Coach,” Washington said during the team’s annual Media Day on Tuesday at the Bryce Jordan Center. “Call me Job.”
Most of the Media Days during Washington’s previous six seasons have focused more on the returning players, but this season the hot topic was the largest recruiting class in her tenure. The new faces include seven freshmen — forwards Kaliyah Mitchell, Peyton Whitted, Alex Harris and Jenny DeGraaf, guards KeKe Sevillian and Lindsey Spann and center Infiniti Alston — and a transfer, sophomore guard Sierra Moore, to a roster of 14.
Spann, who suffered a knee injury, and Moore, who can practice but must sit out a season after transferring from Duke, won’t play this season, but the remainder will see action.
That’s because the Lady Lions, the two-time defending Big Ten regular-season champions, lost five seniors, including starting point guard Alex Bentley, center Nikki Greene and forward Mia Nickson.
“It’s certainly different,” said Washington. “It was a wonderful luxury having a veteran team the past few years — same returning starters, same core team. It’s certainly different because in some ways it’s almost like starting over, teaching new things to eight newcomers.”
With the transition, Washington said she’s taking the advice of Penn State women’s volleyball coach Russ Rose, who has won five national titles and made his program a perennial national power.
“Keep the standards high,” Washington said. “Keep the expectations really high and they’ll meet them. That’s how we’ve been coaching them the first few weeks of practice.”
Washington and her returning players say they’ve seen a lot early from the new recruits, spawning quite a bit of optimism.
“I really like the energy that the freshmen are bringing,” Washington said. “They play with a lot of energy. I’m pretty optimistic on how they are going to perform on gamedays.
“I think Kaliyah Mitchell has shown some really good stuff in practice. Peyton Whitted is a fantastic shooter. She’s doing some good things. Jenny DeGraaf has shown her ability to put the ball in the basket. Alex Harris is really athletic in the post, gets up and down the floor well and is a very good rebounder.”
“I love them,” senior center Talia East said. “They are really a wild, tight, excited bunch. They’re just eager to learn. They’re hungry for the game and they’re hard workers. I couldn’t ask anything more of a freshman class.
“There’s so much talent and my favorite thing is it changes every day,” East added. “There’s always someone stepping up. There’s so many of them. Watching each of them get better every day is just awesome. I can’t wait to see them out there.”
Washington says practice is definitely different every day. She’s never quite sure what she’ll get from the new faces on the roster.
“They’re freshmen,” said Washington, who has led the Lady Lions to three consecutive NCAA Tournament berths. “They’re inconsistent. They look great on Monday and awful on Tuesday. To tell you who is looking good depends on the day you walk in the gym.”
The newcomers know that things are a lot different for them than they were in high school uniforms.
“Everything is faster,” said Whitted, a 6-foot-3 lefty who is making the transition from the post to facing the basket. “The pace and the intensity is higher. That’s a big transition from high school to college, but it’s fun.”
While their new coaches are pointing out their mistakes, they’re also telling them not to dwell upon them.
“You get frustrated pretty quick,” Whitted said. “They’re teaching us that, ‘You’re going to make mistakes. That’s what part of being a freshman is — when you come in you’re not going to know everything like you did in high school.’ They’re doing a good job of that.”
The good news for those youngsters is that they’re not alone. They need to turn only left or right to see one of their teammates in the same boat.
“It makes the transition a lot easier to know that all of you are going through the same things,” said Mitchell, a 6-foot-2 forward. “If you have something going on, you can go talk to them. We’re comforting to each other. It’s nice to know you’re not alone.”
And they’re not alone on the floor.
Washington returns six players, including two starters. One of those starter is Maggie Lucas, the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year. The senior guard, one of the nation’s best 3-point shooters, averaged 20.3 points per game and is on pace to become the second-leading scorer is school history.
Lucas will be a focal point for the opposition in the coming season.
“People have been trying to take away Maggie since she walked through the door,” Washington said. “That won’t be a change for us.”
Lucas says assistant coach Fred Chmiel will have her ready to deal with opposing defenses.
“I’ve been working on a new stuff with Fred,” Lucas said. “Physicality, new ways to get open, being efficient, footwork, all kinds of things. He’s got a lot of tricks up his sleeve.”
Dara Taylor (7.0 points per game last season), part of a three-guard lineup, takes over at the point for Bentley, who made the WNBA All-Rookie first team. Taylor promises to try to take up some of the scoring slack for Bentley, who averaged 14.1 points per game.
“We lost a lot of scoring from the seniors that left last year,” said the former transfer from Maryland. “As a team we have to pick up the scoring and from a point guard standpoint I’ve got be attacking to score and set my teammates up.”
Ariel Edwards, the first player off the bench after starting early last season, will be back in the starting lineup at forward.
“She looks really, really good,” Washington said. “She’s been one of the most impressive players in practice and the most consistent. Her confidence level is really high.”
The Lady Lions return three players in the post — East, junior center Tori Waldner and sophomore center Candice Agee.
East played well off the bench in the NCAA Tournament, averaging 10 rebounds a game in the Lady Lions’ two games.
“The postseason was awesome,” East said. “I love big games. Being able to do well in big games, that’s something you dream of as a kid. It just reminded me I’m a tough kid. LSU was tough. You go to war down there.”
Penn State’s youngsters will get to face some big opponents. Defending national champion Connecticut and former champs Notre Dame and Texas A&M play at the Jordan Center this season. The Lady Lions open their regular season Nov. 8 at home against Saint Francis.
“I think the fans are going to be pleasantly surprised with our team,” Agee said. “I think some people are calling this a rebuiliding year for us, but that is not how we’re looking at it. They can’t even guess what’s coming.”
If the Lady Lions play well, maybe Washington can change her middle name from Job.
“The coaches need patience. We need patience. Everyone needs patience,” said Waldner with a chuckle. “They’re really eager to learn. It’s really a great group. They ask for extra workouts with Maggie, extra work, extra shots and extra help. Patience is needed, yes, but in the amount that we thought, heck no.”