By: Ryan Gasser, sports information director
COLUMBUS, Ohio – When the basketball goes up into the air for the opening tipoff this weekend, it will signal the beginning of not just a new year but a new look for Capital University Women's Basketball. Be it by necessity or design, Head Coach Dixie Jeffers has constructed a strong core of freshman to join a budding group of veterans that will bring the program back to the top of the Ohio Athletic Conference in 2017-18.
Much of the anticipated success will be due to those returning to the Capital lineup. At the top of the list of key returners is junior forward Erin Risner (Canfield, Ohio/Canfield) who finished the 2016-17 season with 8.7 points per game, 5.0 rebounds per game, and a 40.3 percent field goal shooting mark. Her physical play down low on the defensive side also led to 16 blocks and 26 steals.
Coach Jeffers said of Risner, "I think Erin over the last three to four games of the [2016-17] season and postseason really showed some incredible ability to lead, to finish and to get things done. I am looking for her to have that breakout year."
The low post game will be bolstered by a sophomore that last year came onto the scene and filled in off the bench superbly. Forward Regan Stonerock (Circleville, Ohio/Westfall) is expected to continue to grow into a starting role following an inaugural season in which she posted 6.9 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. Even teammate Erin Risner is excited to see what Stonerock will bring to the table after a full season under her belt.
"I love playing with Regan [Stonerock]," said Risner. "She is always a hustler and keeps you accountable for what you are doing."
Senior guard Annika Wachtman (Upper Arlington, Ohio/Upper Arlington) will not only bring senior leadership to court but also stabilize the point guard position, which will operate with a rotation of talented players. As the floor general, Wachtman (7.0 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 1.9 apg) has the most experience to lead an otherwise young, but talented, group that will rely on quick passing to create open looks.
"She [Annika] is a great leader and is always there to look to … and pull my head up out of the dirt when I can't seem to do it myself," said Risner.
Beyond the potential starters, Coach Jeffers looks for the bench to be much strong because of one key returner, Cassidy Bosch (Logan, Ohio/Logan). While listed a guard last year Bosch will play more of a forward role, which speaks to what Jeffers sees in the sophomore.
"She [Bosch] got some playing time early and then went away a little bit. She has worked extremely hard at her body strength, has worked extremely hard her game, and has an incredible attitude," said Jeffers. "She is willing to play any position that you want her to play in because she just wants to play to try to help us."
YOUTH WILL HELP LEAD
More times than not, few coaches get excited about having a large freshman class guide the success of a team. However, Coach Jeffers cites that this group has the talent to compete and start regardless of the rest of the roster.
"We were able to bring in, by dumb luck or whatever, an incredible class," said Jeffers. "As a whole, we have nine exciting freshmen, and I think that six of them are probably able to play right now and will get playing time. We're pretty excited about this freshman class because they have given us depth, they make us better and they have an attitude about them that they want to win."
Guards Caroline Taphorn (Harrison, Ohio/McAuley) and Elle Folan (Cincinnati, Ohio/Ursuline) headline this year's freshman class and are two players likely to see heavy minutes early. Folan has been designated as one of the team's most reliable shooters and will instantly and positively impact the team's shooting percentages from all over the court, but especially from behind the arc. Taphorn will serve as one of the team's lead scoring options after demonstrating an aggressive attack toward the basket, as well as an ability to pull up and shoot with effectiveness.
Other names that may be mentioned over the course of the season are guard Katie Harrop (Delaware, Ohio/Olentangy Liberty), forward Jocie Kaiser (Fort Recovery, Ohio/Fort Recovery) and guard Riley Hagy (New Lexington, Ohio/Bishop Rosecrans).
"We have Katie (Harrop) … quickest hands I have seen in a minute," said Risner. "You'll drive by and think you have it and she'll be down the court with it and not say a word. She is a silent enemy!"
NOT JUST FIRST-YEAR PLAYERS
Coach Jeffers did not just revamp the roster, but also the coaching staff around her. Coming back after a strong four-year playing career at Capital, Simonne Gage '16 joins the staff as an assistant coach. Gage was the 2013 OAC Freshman of the Year and a two-time all-conference selection under Jeffers as the team's point guard all four seasons of her career.
Molly Brennan also joins the staff as an assistant in charge of the Crusaders' post game. A Division III player at Ithaca College (N.Y.), she was a key member of a team that posted more than 70 wins and made three trips to the NCAA Tournament. She spent time as an assistant coach at SUNY Potsdam (N.Y.) before becoming the head coach at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford, helping both programs turn around their fortunes.
BEYOND THE X's AND O's
If there is any one aspect that Coach Jeffers and Risner have both admitted has been a focal point this offseason, it has been improving the team and each individual's focus, consistency and preparation coming into the 2017-18 season.
"This past offseason I definitely focused on being consistent, not necessarily physically, but mentally being there wherever I was," said Risner. "I think consistency is going to have to be a big thing with us."
Jeffers said, "The number one emphasis was to get a ball in your hand, do skills work, do the little things right to make sure you are a better ball handler, and a better shooter." She continued, "And to understand what it takes to be a collegiate player."
An additional unmeasurable that will steer the Crusaders this season will be leadership. Annika Wachtman serves as the senior-most player on the team and will continue to lead vocally and by example. "She (Annika) is a great leader and always there to look to … and pull my head up out of the dirt when I can't seem to do it myself."
Coach Jeffers has constructed a team leadership council to assist Wachtman, which will also help build leaders for future years. She also acknowledges that a leadership presence needs to be felt on the floor.
"You need the on-court leader during a game," said Jeffers. "You need that person that the kids respect enough so that when they call a circle in the huddle and start to demand of you, that the kids don't take offense to that, instead they react to that. We worked really really hard in being able to do that."
WHEN THE BALL GOES UP
While games and their results will give a better view of the picture being painted about this season, Coach Jeffers cites that the standings are not the only place you find success.
"I think you define success if the kids grow as a group, as a program," said Jeffers. "Do they take strides? Do they understand to let the game slow down enough, to let the game come to them? Did you have more good things happen for you than bad?"
It is likely that fans will see immediate improvement in the growth of the outside shooting game with the addition of Folan, Taphorn and the continued development of guard Emily Ondo (Pittsburgh, Pa./Shaler Area).
"I think we are a much better shooting basketball team," said Jeffers. "I say that with reservation because early in the year I don't know how many people shoot very well. We have the capability and potential to be very lethal offensively. I have to get this bunch to understand how hard they have to play defensively."
Jeffers' M.O. is building strong defensive teams, and if the offense can support a defense that allowed just 62.4 points per game last year the Crusaders will certainly see an increase in the win column.
THE FIRST STEPS
Capital looks to rebound from an 11-16 season, and that process begins on Friday, Nov. 17 at the Chuck Resler Tournament, hosted by the University of Rochester. Capital will face stiff competition to open the 2017-18 season when it takes on the host Yellow Jackets at 6 p.m. Pending the result of Friday night's game, the Crusaders will return to play either Calvin College of No. 7 Thomas More College the next day at 1 or 6 p.m.
The Crusaders play their first home game on Tuesday, Nov. 21 when they welcome Wittenberg University to The Capital Center Performance Arena for a 7:30 p.m. contest.