The talent was there, but even coach Tory Verdi was surprised how ready his team was to compete at a high level.
Eastern Michigan University finished its women’s basketball season with a record of 18-14, after a disappointing 8-22 record last season. The turnaround had a lot to do with maturity, especially in the young incoming freshmen.
“When you look at what our young kids did this past year, it’s truly amazing,” Verdi said. “Take Cha Sweeney, who is second team all-conference and our leading scorer, those are huge accomplishments.”
Verdi said the freshmen’s impact on the team was more than he could have expected and their growth and development was huge for the season. It took him by surprise how ready they were.
“When we recruited these kids, we knew they would be special,” Verdi said. “Now as freshmen, you just don’t know how consistent they’re going to be. We knew they were going to be productive, but I didn’t realize they were going to be as productive as they were.”
The Eagles started the season hot with a record of 12-1 before losing seven of their next eight games.
Verdi said that once Mid-American Conference play started, they were two different teams because of injuries.
“Those kids were tough enough to continue to play throughout the season, but it hurt us,” Verdi said. “They weren’t able to practice every single day and we weren’t the team that we wanted to be.”
Eastern went 5-4 the rest of the way, and clinched an eighth seed in the MAC tournament.
The Eagles ended up losing in the first round of the tournament, but the season wasn’t over for the team as it got an invite to the Women’s Basketball Invitational.
Eastern rested its seniors throughout the WBI and won in the first round against the University of Evansville before losing in the second to the University of Illinois-Chicago.
While resting the four seniors (Natachia Watkins, Sara Stone, Olivia Fouty and Desyree Thomas) was controversial, Verdi thinks that playing the games without the seniors showed us how they could replace the contributions from the seniors next year.
Returning next year is leading scorer Sweeney as well as her backcourt teammate Janay Morton.
Sweeney and Morton averaged 17.4 and 13 points a game for the Eagles this past year. Also returning is Shannise Heady. Heady missed all of last year and the first semester of this year after transferring from Seton Hall University. Her role with the team grew as the season went along.
“She did an unbelievable job of growing each and every day,” Verdi said. “She put herself in a position to achieve a lot of great things. I expect her to come back next year even bigger and stronger and more skilled than she was this year.”
Verdi says the team will miss the seniors’ experience.
“I feel very comfortable and confident with the returning kids we have,” Verdi said. “I feel good with where we are and along with the freshman class coming in, I think we’ve addressed a lot of needs.”
Verdi doesn’t forget about the goal of his team and the school and what they must do to get there.
“Our ultimate goal is to win the MAC championship,” he said. “They exceeded my expectations for this year. I’m proud of our team and what they’ve accomplished.”