|Senior Jess McCoy chips in 15.3 points per game in addition to providing leadership to a young and energized Spartans squad.
Case Western Reserve Athletics photo
Case Western Reserve University's women thought they could be a factor in the race for the UAA championship this year.
An 8-3 start in nonconference play raised expectations for the Spartans. An 87-78 win at Carnegie Mellon to open UAA action justified the team's belief. Case Western Reserve won its next game at New York University, 79-52, but dropped an 81-69 decision at Brandeis. That left the Spartans in a five-way tie for first in the UAA at 2-1.
Not bad for a program that went 3-11 in conference play the past two years and 4-10 in 2013-14.
"I think our nonconference schedule got us ready for UAA play. These players have not been in this position as part of their CWRU careers. They have been in this position as high school players, though," CWRU coach Jen Reimer said. "We've been talking about how to manage things. A lot of our conversation has been about earning the respect of people outside of our locker room. We've put great work in and we feel great with where we are now. We know we have not yet reached full potential with this group. We've stressed the importance of working even harder now that people are taking note."
Case Western Reserve's triumph at Carnegie Mellon, which was previously unbeaten, was a signature victory for the team. However, the Spartans face a treacherous path through the UAA, which includes two games apiece against ranked squads Rochester and Washington as well as another meeting with CMU.
"It was definitely exciting (to beat CMU). I think it was a good confidence boost for us as well. Getting that win and proving to ourselves we can do it – it's nice to prove we're a force to be reckoned with," CWRU junior forward Kara Hageman said. "We're not even halfway through our season, though. We have a long way to go. We're lucky to play in the UAA. We love it because there is such good competition. We know it's not an easy road. We have much more improvement to make, but we're excited."
Offense has fueled Case Western Reserve's strong start. The Spartans rank first in the UAA at 77.9 points. They've had two players averaging more than 20 points per game for most of the season in sophomore Hillary Hellmann and Hageman, who just dipped to 19.4.
"It definitely is not very common to have two players average 20 points per game, but it's not just the two players. It's everyone on the floor contributing to that. Really, it's a team effort that Hillary and I can both put up that many points," Hageman said. "Everybody on the floor is more of an offensive threat this year. We still think defense is very, very important, but we just have the different pieces we need to be an offensive threat."
Last year, the Spartans averaged 63.2 points per game and finished 8-17. They insist not much has changed, systematically, with their offensive approach this season. But, as the points have piled up, so have the wins.
"Last year, we had some really key injuries that impacted our entire season. From start to finish, some integral part of the team was injured. Staying relatively healthy has lent itself to things coming together," Reimer said. "It has been awesome to watch the ball go in the basket the way it has. It's a lot of fun to be able to put those points on the board. We need to continue working on the defensive side. We can make things easier for ourselves if we limit our opponents' scoring. Scoring the way we have has allowed us to stay competitive, though."
Case Western Reserve is loaded with young players. Other than seniors Jess McCoy and Alex Roth and Hageman, the rest of the players are sophomores and freshmen. Sophomores Alexis Amburgey and Hellmann join freshman Alicia Marie Gonzales in the starting lineup with McCoy and Hageman.
"It's been awesome. I can't say enough about what a wonderful group it is to coach. Kara and Jess are our captains and they have been awesome. The infusion of talent and energy of our freshman class has been big. Everyone is playing a great role in our success," Reimer said. "Our freshmen just blended in. Having been around a while, it doesn't happen like this all the time. We're just lucky and thankful it's come together."
McCoy, who averages 15.3 points per outing, insists the team has been working together toward a common goal despite its youth.
"I wish we could take credit for it, but we can't. We really lucked out. The sophomores and freshmen are very driven and playing big roles for us. What Kara and I try to do is just lead by example. The younger players are smart and work so hard," she said. "The team has been great. At this point in time, the season is still young. We have a lot of tough tests coming up. I am excited for everybody. It'll be a good time."
The Spartans are excited to return home, especially. They haven't played a game in their own gym since Nov. 27 – a span of eight contests and nearly two months.
"I miss playing at home. It seems like it's been forever. I am excited to be home," McCoy said. "It'll be nice to have more fans and a community behind us. We hope to continue our strong start and have fans that will support us. I am excited for that."
Case Western Reserve is home for seven of its last 11 games – including a four-game stretch that starts Friday against Emory.
"We're excited to be able to play here in Cleveland. The travel trips are fun. We like to get on the road and see all the cities. I think that was a big contributor to why our chemistry is so good because we are spending a lot of time together as a team," Hageman said. "It's good. We like travelling together, but we're definitely excited to have some home games."