Toppers Young, Inexperienced
By SHAWN RINE
WEST LIBERTY — Last year’s senior class was something special. The names Kailee Howe, Liz Flowers and Kiki Simpson will go down as some of the best to ever lace up sneakers for Coach Lynn Ullom, and Jasmin Kiley was a valuable contributor off the bench.
But that group is gone. It’s attempting to be replaced by a group without all that much college basketball experience — particularly in Ullom’s system.
”Not the first time I have had to face this,” Ullom said. ”It’s happened two or three times where the next year you are replacing everyone.
”I don’t think I am hurting anybody’s feelings by saying this, but we didn’t assume coming into this that we were championship-caliber.
”It’s going to be trial and error. I’m guessing a little bit.”
Johnie Olkosky, who started as a freshman, and senior Emily Bucon, a Wheeling Central graduate and key piece of last season’s run to the NCAA Division II Sweet 16 are back, but both battled injuries all preseason.
”Both had offseason surgery,” Ullom said. ”Emily barely practiced. They aren’t 100 percent healthy and are being forced to do things they haven’t had to do.
”They have had to expand their role.”
The Hilltoppers got out of the gate slowly with losses against Mercyhurst, California Pa., and Ohio Dominican. It’s a schedule that isn’t exactly custom made for green teams.
”This is probably the best Mercyhurst team ever,” Ullom said. ”Cal is in the favorite to win a national championship and Ohio Dominican thinks it has a team to compete for a national title, too.
”We knew that this was going to be a challenge.”
The starting lineup is in a fluid state.
Gannon transfer McKenna Shives scored 31 in the loss to Ohio Dominican, but Ullom says right now she’s playing out of position at point guard.
”She has Steph Curry range, but she’s only 5-4 so we need to be able to get her some screens,” the coach said.
Marissa Brown, a 6-foot-3 transfer from Youngstown State is being counted on to give minutes inside and Brandi Beader, who was in the rotation last season, started two of the first three games.
Freshman Grace Fodor is going to eventually take over at the point and Ullom hopes it’s sooner rather than later, so that Shives can move to her natural two-guard spot.
Another senior, Lindsey Fenwick, played well at Mercyhurst.
Monica Bragg, a freshman from Madonna, was the team’s leading scorer and rebounder in the loss to Cal.
”And she was very active on defense,” Ullom said.
The coaching staff, which also includes Kyle Cooper, Robbie Bonar and Bri Kamarec, is high on 5-8 freshman guard Olivia Belknapp, who played high school ball at Dover.
”She’s multi-talented and sneaky athletic, but she’s scared to death right now,” Ullom said. ”Going to have a big-time career.
”I hate to make comparisons, but she’s a Liz Flowers. She is at that talent level.”
Allie Farina could also see time in the post and Kelly Meade, another freshman, will get minutes.
Hannah Griffith and Jackie Kitts are redshirting.
Rounding out the roster are walkons Micah Findley, Kayla Boggs, Baylee Smith and Beth Dalton.
”We have inflicted a lot of lumps on other people, but maybe now we will take a few,” Ullom said. ”We have these about every 10 years.
”We want to get better so when we get to mid-January and into February to position ourselves for a run.”
Nov. 28: at Edinboro 7 p.m.
Nov. 30: Shepherd 5:30 p.m.
Dec. 4: at Fairmont 1:30 p.m.
*Dec. 10: at Liberty 11 a.m.
Dec. 13: at Salem 5:30 p.m.
Dec. 16: Slippery Rock 1 p.m.
Jan. 3: at W.Va. State 5:30 p.m.
Jan. 5: Charleston 5:30 p.m.
Jan. 8: at Glenville 2 p.m.
Jan. 10: at W.Va. Wesleyan 5:30 p.m.
Jan. 14: UVa.-Wise 2 p.m.
Jan. 16: Concord 4:30 p.m.
Jan. 19: Wheeling Jesuit 5:30 p.m.
Jan. 21: at Notre Dame 2 p.m.
Jan. 26: at Charleston 5:30 p.m.
Jan. 28: W.Va. State 2 p.m.
Feb. 1: at Shepherd 5:30 p.m.
Feb. 4: Fairmont 2 p.m.
Feb. 9: at Concord 5:30 p.m.
Feb. 11: at UVa.-Wise 2 p.m.
Feb. 16: W.Va. Wesleyan 5:30 p.m.
Feb. 18: Glenville 2 p.m.
Feb. 23: at Urbana 5:30 p.m.