By Chris Chaney
A tough schedule, difficult venues and the stress of finals week hasn’t been enough to hold down the UC Clermont Lady Cougars as the women’s’ basketball team has proven to have the mettle necessary to make an eighth straight United States Collegiate Athletic Association National Tournament appearance.
“We started off pretty well beating a few NAIA Division II schools to start the season,” head coach Michael Matthews said. “I think with our injuries and sicknesses and playing some pretty good teams, we’ve rebounded (lately) after losing four or five games.”
A tale of two seasons thus far, the Lady Cougars began the year winning six of their first seven games before losing four of their next six. A statement win over Miami University – Hamilton on Dec. 22 has Coach Matthews encouraged by the progress his team has made.
With returning Second Team All-Americans on the low block (Stacie Lee) and on the perimeter (Ashley Keith), Matthews said his team’s balance has been a key as well as the upperclassmen leadership that has helped to acclimate five freshmen who have entered the fray this season.
“For most girls — even on the small college level — they’re used to coming in and being starters,” Matthews explained. “That’s the biggest hurdle coaches face, trying to get girls to come in and be a part of a team and not be the star.
“Because we have three seniors and two juniors, we have really good leaders. When our coaches are coaching, the seniors are telling the freshmen that they have to listen because this is how it is.”
Aside from Lee and Keith, Goshen product Brooke Catauro, Bethel-Tate alumna Tess Jenike and Lockland grad Dana Finney have helped to make the newcomers understand what Clermont is trying to do.
With Ri-Chel McGraw, the team’s third leading scorer, going down with a torn ACL early in the season, Matthews was worried about the depth of his team, but he will soon have the services of two more freshmen who are joining the team midseason.
“We’re a little thin on our depth, which is unusual for us,” Matthews said. “We’re picking up Arica Stutz from Felicity…and Morgan Wright from Western Brown.”
Both Stutz and Wright were Division I scholarship athletes before deciding to return closer to home and play basketball for the Lady Cougars, adding much-needed depth.
Sitting at 9-5 halfway through the season, Matthews is pleased with how his team has played, especially considering just three of the squad’s games so far have been at home.
“It’ll be nice to get some home games (in the second half of the season),” Matthews said. “As far as expectations, we’re going to have to beat some good teams. We’re playing fewer games this season, so we have a smaller room for error to make the USCAA National Tournament. We need to stay in the top-five (in the national rankings) and we’re no. five right now, so we just have to keep winning.”
Matthews said that the team goals are pretty simple and fall in line with what the team has been building over the past few years.
“First of all, we want to win our league, (the Ohio Collegiate Athletic Conference),” he said. “The second thing is to keep improving and getting better game by game and finish the season strong.”
The Lady Cougars will take the court for the first time in 2014 when they play host to Sinclair Community College on Jan. 4 at 1 p.m.