Buff, Cardinals Learning on the Fly

By SHAWN RINE

WHEELING — Debbie Buff is accustomed to winning. She has led the Wheeling Jesuit women to back-to-back Mountain East Conference championships.

But even Buff was taken aback during the conference’s media day, where it was revealed the Cardinals were picked preseason No. 2. Last season’s club took eventual national runner up Virginia Union to the wire in an Atlantic Regional opener.

”We’re not last year’s team,” Buff said. ”We lost four players (Jaana Motton, Kyle Frizell, Chelsea Richardson and Ludia Hyburg) and have a lot of young kids playing.

”That’s why I was surprised to be picked No. 2 in the conference.”

It’s true.

This is a new-look Wheeling Jesuit team, though there are some holdovers. The leaders of the team are seniors Mariah Callen and Monica Burns, both of whom received All-MEC honors a year ago.

Beyond that, however, is a mixture of inexperienced returnees and true freshmen. It’s a makes for a tough recipe against an arduous early season schedule that saw the Cardinals stumble to a 1-4 start.

”This is by far the toughest nonconference shcedule we have played in the seven years I have been here,” Buff said. ”

”It is also the youngest team I have put on the floor. We’re playing I think six PSAC schools.

”But I would rather play a tougher schedule that would help us in the end.”

WJU ooened in the Shippensburg Tournament by knocking off the host and giving Buff her 200th victory. The Cards dropped a decision to Kutztown the next day before also losing to Edinboro, West Virginia Wesleyan and to Glenville in their first game at the Alma Grace McDonough Center.

Having gone 52-13 the last two seasons, these struggles haven’t been easy to digest.

”Particularly for Mariah and Mo, who aren’t used to losing,” Buff said.

Don’t feel sorry for the Cardinals, though. With the talent on this roster, the wins are going to come once all the pieces begin coming together.

”Anyone can beat anybody in our league,” Buff said. ”There are so many new coaches with new systems for us to be adaptable to. We will need to continue to win on the road and need to have the ability for key kids to step up for us.

”Other than the top four (including senior Cassi Stein), our team is 75-percent freshmen and sophomores. The learning curve is high and we have had more teaching going on, but this group is focused and the freshmen are picking things up.”

It starts with Callen, a product of University High School who has a motor that never stops. One of the conference’s best at taking care of the basketball, the two-time All-MEC player scored 13.2 points and handed out 4.6 assists per night, while owning the second-best assist-to-turnover ratio at 2.03.

The senior drained 67 baskets from beyond the 3-point line.

“Mariah’s leadership at the point is key for our team along with how familiar she is running our system the last few years,” Buff said. “She is an excellent quarterback, who has a big-time game, pushes the tempo and can score on drives and outside by the 3-pointer.”

A redshirt junior who transferred to WJU last season, Burns ranked sixth in the MEC with a 15.4 point per-game average. She pumped in 76 3-pointers, but her most impressive number was her NCAA Division II-leading 94.6-free throw percent. She has cashed more than 100 straight, which is an NCAA record.

“Mo is developing into a complete player,” Buff said. ”She is our best shooter, drives the ball, has experience in big games and has improved defensively.”

Chenelle Moore is a force in the paint and already set a career-high with 32 points in a game earlier this season. She had 19 points and 12 rebounds in the Glenville loss.

”She’s really playing well, really rebounding,” Buff said. ”She wants to win and she’s a competitor. She’s tough.

”I worked on her in the preseason on her outside game so I think she’s now facing (the basket) and driving more.

”She runs as well as any post player gets up the floor.”

That trio is joined by senior Cassi Stein, who has battled injuries during her time in Wheeling. Stein pulled down 10 rebounds against the Pioneers.

”She really didn’t play last year and she missed the playoffs the year before,” Buff said. ”But she’s a good kid, she’s high-energy and she’s positive every day.

”I think that’s going to help us. I just want her to get more shots off.”

They are joined in the starting lineup by sophomore Lauren Lipscomb.

“Lauren is stepping up as a sophomore. Heigh-twise she is small (5-foot-8), but very strong,” Buff said. ”Lipscomb will be one of our best rebounders as she plays with a real sense of urgency and is consistent day in-and-day out for us.”

Sophomores Khira Burton and Talia Cashwell are both ready for more backcourt time this year. The quick point player Burton saw five minutes per game where she had a season-high six points and three rebounds against West Virginia Wesleyan.

“Khira has really grown and has taken a big jump from being a freshman to now as a sophomore,” Buff said. “She will push tempo and breaks down defenses as she competes at the point.”

The athletic Cashwell, like Burton, saw limited time her first season, but she did drop four 3-pointers and finished with 29 points on the year.

“Talia is a skilled player who came back harder in our preseason. She plays off the bounce and has also made a jump from being a freshman,” Buff said.

Five new freshmen guards — Tori Harrison, Sadera Johnson, Rya Nelson, Kelsi Chapman and Lauryn Clarke-Cornette — dot the Cardinals roster. Harrison from Centerville, Ohio, was an Ohio All-Star and Johnson of Columbus, Ohio, was an All-City performer for Independence High’s team.

A quick point guard, Nelson was an All-County player for Waldorf, Md.’s Thomas Stone High, where she averaged 12 points and six assists per night.

Chapman heads up to Wheeling from Magnolia High as she was an All-West Virginia second-team honoree and 1,000-career point scorer.

Clarke-Cornette (Brooklyn, N.Y.) gives WJU another quick, good defender to the guard spot.

The tallest Cardinal comes in 6-3 Kiara Wade of Farrell, Pa. She will add an inside presence and was a consistent double-double performer where she averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds.

Coming back off a medical redshirt, freshman Aislynn Hartman will add another player to the inside rotation. Hartman looks to return to the Cardinals active roster after the semester break.

“We will need to be strong defensively again,” Buff said. ”Our defensive principles have to be taught to and learned by the new players.

”Our rebounding will be a challenge for us and we need our entire team to concentrate on it, especially our guards, who have to rebound more this season.”

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