By: Shane Petagna
After an off-season filled with change for the University of Tampa women’s basketball team, the No. 17 ranked Spartans in the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WCBA) preseason coaches poll begin their season Nov. 11 in the South Region Crossover.
The first game of the season will kick off in the Bob Martinez Athletic Center at 3 pm against Spring Hill College.
The 2021-22 Spartans ended their season with a loss to Valdosta State in the NCAA South Regional, but not before winning both the Sunshine State Conference (SSC) regular-season and tournament championships and finishing with a 29-6 overall record. The tournament championship title was the second consecutive one for the program.
Eight out of the 15 players on the roster are newcomers, and coach Tom Jessee added Tommy Jones and Elena de Alfredo as assistant coaches.
“Anytime you can get somebody who has been with you, that has the same philosophy, same principles, same teaching concepts and is loyal to your back, that’s huge,” said Jessee.
Jones held the same position with the Spartans for two seasons until 2013 while de Alfredo’s return comes after her own playing career with the Spartans during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons. She has experience playing for the Spanish national team and was a graduate assistant under Jessee for two years before her current stint on the staff.
As for players, three of the five starters from the final game against Valdosta State graduated, with guards Melijah Sullivan and Mya Guisto as the two remaining from that group.
Those three starters include Aliyah Abney, who was a WBCA All-American and the team’s leading scorer. In addition, LaShayla Wright-Ponder garnered three different First-Team All-SSC selections over the course of her career and Kayla Bonilla was a second-team all-conference player at her previous college.
“We recruit here with the word ‘tradition,’” said Jessee. “When we’re recruiting players here, we talk to those players about coming into a tradition, and the tradition is that you expect to compete in your conference for conference championships and you expect to compete to make the NCAA Tournament and be a national team.”
Five transfers and three freshmen make up the class of newcomers for Tampa. Sydney Kin headlines the group as a senior forward/center from the University of Findlay and was named to the All-Defensive and First-Team All-Conference teams while averaging 17.3 points per game in 2021-22.
Sarah Jones, junior guard, and Alani Gallagher, graduate forward, have experience in the SSC. Jones transferred from Embry-Riddle and Gallagher from Saint Leo, where Jones led the Eagles in scoring last season in addition to leading the conference in steals. Gallagher has a defensive presence as well, winning the SSC Defensive Player of the Year in her junior season.
“[Kin] is an incredibly skilled young lady. She’ll be leaned on right away to replace the graduation of the post players we lost,” said Jessee. “And on the other side of that Jones comes in. Sarah’s a very talented guard that can really score basketball plays with a lot of pace.”
Rounding out the transfers are two guards in graduate Audra Leipold and junior Bella Steidle, who both come over from Division I schools. Out of the three freshmen, Jessee said to expect Adeline Kent, another guard, to break into the 10-player rotation by the end of the season.
“I feel like we have a very unique team and we have a lot of opportunities ahead of us,” said Leipold. “We always want to make the extra pass to the extra person, we want to find the best person to take the best shot, and we do a really good job of that as of right now.”
There is still homegrown talent the team believes will make an impact. Sullivan won the SSC Player of the Year Award two seasons ago and was third on the team in scoring behind Abney and Wright-Ponder last year.
“[Sullivan] will be the leader we look at right away. She’s a go-to player that can make plays for herself and for teammates,” said Jessee. “She’s a very skilled kid who can play outside and inside. She is just a really tough matchup for teams to have.”
However, Sullivan is currently dealing with a lower leg injury with the recovery being a week-to-week process according to Jessee.
The South Region Crossover tips off the season for the Spartans at home where they will open against Spring Hill and play West Georgia the following day. Tampa has four home games before traveling to Hawaii for the Malika Sports Thanksgiving Tournament and all five of their December games are in the Bob Martinez Center before the schedule picks up in intensity in the new year.
“I think we have good chemistry on the team. We have really good and talented players all around,” said Kin. “We’ve just been executing every day in practice really well, so I’m excited.”