The Penguins are looking for their answers during the spring, already facing Bowling Green State University, Easter Michigan University and Saint Francis University last Saturday. Hardaway answered these early-season questions on Tuesday in this week’s “Five for Five.”
YSU finished 16-15 (7-7 Horizon League) a season ago and fell to Valparaiso University in the conference tournament. In Hardaway’s first season, the Penguins finished 15-14 (5-9) and lost against Valpo in the first round of the conference tournament.
A) It’s going well. It’s different because of how many people we lost, so practices have a different tempo to them. You’re trying to see who’s going to fill in for all of the seniors. The first spring tournament went better than I expected in some respect, but then there were — after re-watching the film — a lot of errors. We still have a lot of stuff to work on.
Q) Who are some of the new girls coming in that you have high hopes for — maybe some incoming freshmen or those who didn’t play a whole lot last year?
A) Well, I know that Val Jeffery, who transferred midyear, has made a big difference already. She’s a setter with three years of eligibility left. She’s very talented and a lot like Jessie Gerig, who’s our returning setter. Our passing isn’t as good, but it doesn’t look as bad because of how fast those two are, so I think those two are making a big difference. Lauren Thompson, who filled in for Missy [Hundelt] when she got hurt, is doing a really good job. Aly Ryan, who’s been a two-year starter, her role’s going to be bigger next year just because she wasn’t necessarily the go-to person. She’s going to have to kind of fulfill that role now. Nikki Thompson who is a defensive specialist is probably stepping into a leadership role. I know that Lexi [Egler] carried a big role last year, so she’ll have to come in and continue to carry that role. We know what she can do from that standpoint.
We’ll have to have some help from our freshmen, either from Sam Brown who’s a kid coming from Chicago or Lauren Blanco who’s coming from Texas. They’re both left sides. One of those two will probably be in the lineup, so it’ll be interesting to see those two battle. Of the incoming kids, those are the two with probably the best chance of coming in and playing right away.
Q) You mentioned Missy. When she tore her ACL last year, was maybe one positive, if there were any positives, that you kind of got a glimpse of the future of what it would be like without Missy?
A) That was one of the things that we talked about because we had half a year to adjust to her being gone. This fall is not as dramatic of a loss because we had half a season to get used to that loss, but the loss of the seven seniors is a big loss. I mean all of those kids played so much. It’s a big loss, but I do think the one positive of Missy is it gave us time to adjust of a life without her because she was so skilled in so many different areas. I think one reason why Lauren is doing so well now is because she had half a year of playing to start making the transition. In that respect, it will help us next year when we step on the floor.
Q) Since you came here a few years back, is going into the next season the biggest challenge you’re facing so far because you lost so many seniors?
A) I don’t know. One of the things that we talked about in the banquet [on Saturday] was how easy the seniors made it for me because I really expected the biggest challenge to be changing the culture in the gym. The seniors bought in right away and worked hard right away. That challenge wasn’t as big as I thought it would be, so this is probably a bigger challenge with that many people leaving. Right now, team chemistry is good, but when you add five to seven new personalities to that mix, you just never know what’s going to happen. It is a huge challenge for me, but it’s also a big challenge to the team because different people are going to have to step up to fill roles. We have two new captains. They’re definitely going to have to step up and become a little more outgoing [and] a little more vocal.
Q) With your recruits now coming in and, as mentioned numerous times, the seniors lost, do you maybe have a little more of a sense that this is now your team because it’s more of your girls coming in as opposed to what you gained when you were hired?
A) You know, not really. I really didn’t look at it as the ‘coaches’ before me kids.’ I think from the very start, and I think part of it is because they bought in so quickly, I’ve looked at it as my team since I got here. I know that most coaches can’t wait to get the old players out and put their kids in, but I’m really sad to see these kids go. I believe the coaches before me did a really nice job recruiting some good athletes, and it was a lot of fun to work with them. I don’t really feel like ‘Oh, now it’s my team.’ I felt like it was my team from the start. In some ways, I do get to pick and choose. I could’ve come in and said ‘Okay, I really don’t like you guys.’ You could technically replace them right away, but my philosophy is someone made a commitment to them somewhere. As a new coach, I still think you have to make that commitment, and they made it easy. I really do feel like it’s been my team from the start.