Coquese Washington knows what her roster says, but she's not buying it.
Yeah, she has a senior, two juniors and six sophomores, but as far as she’s concerned nearly all of her players are from one class.
“We’ve got a team full of freshmen,” said Washington, who met with media Monday in the South Gym at the Bryce Jordan Center as her squad officially kicked off practice for the coming season. “We’ve got 11 kids and 10 of them really haven’t played a ton of minutes on this court for us. ... Practice will be an adventure every single day.”
Tori Waldner, the team’s only senior, is the lone returning starter from a squad that went 24-8, captured its third consecutive Big Ten regular-season title and advanced to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament. Waldner is the leading returning scorer (4.9 points per game) and rebounder (5.6 per game). Sophomore guard/forward Kaliyah Mitchell is the only other player on the roster to average more than 11 minutes per game.
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Gone are Maggie Lucas’ 2,510 career points and back-to-back Big Ten Player of the Year awards. Gone is Ariel Edwards, who joined Lucas as a First Team All-Big Ten pick and tossed in 1,054 career points. Gone are Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Dara Taylor and honorable mention All-Big Ten selection Talia East.
“It does feel a little bit different,” said Washington, who enters her eighth season leading the Lady Lions. “There’s a different level of anticipation and uncertainty. But that’s the fun part — getting a chance to figure out what our identity is going to be, who is going to step up and emerge, how our roles are going to be defined.”
Waldner, a 6-foot-5 forward from Milton, Ga., is definitely the team leader off the court.
“Tori Waldner has provided tremendous leadership so far,” Washington said. “She’s our only senior and she’s been around the longest. She knows what I want and what we want to accomplish.”
Once play begins, Washington is looking for others to take control. Lindsey Spann, who missed all of her freshman season with a knee injury, and Keke Sevillian, used sparingly last year, are the team’s point guards. Sophomore Sierra Moore, who missed a season by NCAA rules after transferring from Duke, also is a dynamic personality.
“On the court, we’re going to look to some of our young kids to provide leadership,” Washington said. “Our point guards Lindsey and Keke will have to step up and provide some leadership and I think Sierra Moore has a chance to emerge as a leader. She reminds me of Alex Bentley and Maggie Lucas in a sense that she’s a fiery competitor.”
Junior center Candice Agee, who played hurt most of last season, and sophomore forward Peyton Whitted have opportunities to make significant impacts. Whitted has added “15 pounds of muscle,” according to Washington. Sophomores Alex Harris and Jenny DeGraaf and junior transfer Dominique Brooks are forwards looking to crack the lineup. The last member of the roster can’t play this season. Guard Brianna Banks, a senior transfer from Connecticut, must sit out per NCAA rules, but will practice with the team. Banks was a member of two NCAA title teams with the Huskies.
Washington said her squad, which opens the regular season against Towson at the Bryce Jordan Center on Nov. 14 in the Preseason WNIT, begins practice relatively healthy.
“For the most part everybody is in pretty good shape,” she said. “They’re not in great shape, but they’re where they need to be at this point. Now it’s about us getting in here every day and getting where we need to Nov. 14.”
Defending their Big Ten title becomes even more challenging this season for the Lady Lions with the addition of Maryland and Rutgers. The Terrapins advanced to the Final Four last season and Rutgers won the WNIT title.
“I love it. I love the fact that we have Maryland and Rutgers in the conference,” Washington said, “It makes our conference more competitive. When you have that quality and caliber of teams and you add them to the quality coaching that we already have and now you’ve got some additional styles that you’ve got to defend, I think it only makes our conference stronger. We’ll see the results of that in postseason play this year.”
In addition to young players and new foes, Washington has a revamped staff. Gone are assistants Maren Walseth (head coach at North Dakota State) and Fred Chmiel (assistant coach at Minnesota) and in are Itoro Coleman and Jocelyn Wyatt.
Coleman is a familiar face, having coached three seasons under Washington at Penn State before becoming the head coach at her alma mater Clemson for three seasons.
“It’s felt like home ever since I came back,” Coleman said. “I’m just familiar with the surroundings and the people here. It’s made my transition so easy.”
Coleman, who coached point guards during her first stint here, is instructing post players this time.
“I’ve coached every position and being a head coach you have to know what you want from each player,” Coleman said. “I like the opportunity to work with these 6-6’s and 6-5’s.”
Washington enjoys her revamped staff.
“It’s great. It’s a ton of energy,” she said. “... Our new staff is really good for each other and it’s really good for the kids. They’re really buying into how we’re doing things differently this year.”
Penn State’s players were unavailable Monday, but will be available later this month at the team’s official Media Day.