By CANDACE MARTINO
After winning the Sunshine State Conference (SSC) Tournament title last year, the women’s basketball program heads into 2016-2017 season with a few sure bets in its rotation. With the graduation of six seniors and one of the program’s top leading scorers, that could leave a dent in just about any roster.
“We obviously have started over a little bit,” said head coach Tom Jessee. “Some people call it rebuilding, we’ve got some new parts and that’s always exciting. [It’s] a little bit scary at times too because the unknown is there.”
The first few weeks of preseason tested Jessee and his staff as eight new faces in the program took the court under his reins for the very first time. The promise of growing pains is inevitably knocking at the door with inexperienced players, but if there’s one thing that will remain certain it’s the consistency of senior point guard Elena de Alfredo.
“She really had a great summer, she went home committed [and] really worked on her basketball game,” Jessee said. “We really need that as we look for leadership and [we] expect it from an elite guard position.”
Last season de Alfredo was a member of the SSC All-Newcomer Team, averaging 11.7 ppg, shooting an impressive 45.3 percent from the floor, and was named captain during her first year as a Spartan. With notable stats like that, many would say, “if it’s not broke don’t fix it,” but for de Alfredo that wasn’t the case. It only pushed her this past summer to work harder than ever before.
“I worked [extremely] hard this summer, I wanted to get better [and] I wanted to get in better shape,” de Alfredo said. “Last year at the end of the season I had a little bit of problems with my Achilles and I wanted to be healthy, so I took pride in that. If I want to set a great example there’s nothing better than being in great shape and right now I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in.”
There is no doubt that what de Alfredo is doing has paved a smoother transition for her new teammates. Junior guard Faith Saunders, a transfer out of Northern Kentucky University, didn’t hesitate to lean on her team captain from the time she arrived on campus.
“She’s strong — It’s hard to tell when she’s having a bad day because she’s the same person every day,” Saunders said. “She leaves it on the court every day, in conditioning she goes hard, in practice she goes hard, and if she makes a mistake she’s honest to it. I really respect [that].”
Although de Alfredo isn’t the only one Saunders finds comfort in, for Saunders it’s an old teammate that went to NKU with her, junior Molly Franson. Both transferred to Tampa this fall looking for a clean slate.
“Faith and I were close back at [NKU], and now that we are here it’s a [separate] journey. We both closed the door on our past and looked forward to this. We’re both just so excited about our journey here. It’s comforting and it’s fun,” Franson said.
Likewise for de Alfredo she was also a transfer last season from the University of Toledo looking for a second chance. She spent her junior year adjusting to Coach Jessee’s style of play and getting acquainted with the surrounding environment. But, with a year under her belt de Alfredo now feels more comfortable with reaching out and guiding the newcomers.
The two are among four other transfers who are new to the team this year, including a transfer from UNC Charlotte, University of Colorado Springs and two from the University of Hartford. For some coaches, adding transfers isn’t always the way to go but Jessee views it in a different light.
“A lot of the [transfers] are ‘start over’ kids we call them, [or] ‘second chance’ kids. So they’re excited, we’re excited to teach them our system and things. It’s just fun to have another group to teach the way we want to teach, and get them ready not just for basketball but for life,” Jessee said.
As the season-opener draws closer, the Spartans continue to progress on the court and look to many new faces to be the next answer. Despite what may seem to be an inexperienced roster, one thing the team isn’t lacking is the comradery that they need to be successful.
“I couldn’t be more proud to be their teammate,” de Alfredo said. “I hope that translates to the court when we start our first game of the season. I think overall [the newcomers] bring something very special to our team, and I hope they feel like we love them and we’re very happy for them to be here.
Candace Martino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org