Tom McConnell has been busy laying the foundation for his IUP women’s basketball program.
The first-year coach has an experienced team. He has hired two assistant coaches. He has put his team through its paces in the preseason, preaching the fundamentals and X’s and O’s of the game.
The bedrock of his program, though, is this: Love.
McConnell doesn’t want to just build a basketball program; he wants to start a family. Love for each other is the foundation, and that philosophy, to use the most powerful of emotions as a focal point, is one he formulated as a father of six and during a long career in coaching.
“It’s a combination of me coming from a big family but also years of coaching and playing and just finding and creating an environment of, How do you want to be coached? What kind of environment do you want to be in every day?” McConnell said. “I just decided along the way that the best way to do it is to let the players know they’re loved and cared about and pushing it beyond the dribble, the pass and the shot and at the same time challenging them and creating an environment where they can come in and work and be pushed but know that they’re cared about.
“The older you get you really start to learn it really is about relationships. I think early in my career I focused on the winning and losing, but I learned over time that if you put people first, if you really care about them and genuinely love and care about them and work them hard, the winning and losing will take care of itself, but not to chase that. Let that be the fruit of hard work and unity.”
McConnell was hired in June, and once he began to form relationships with his players, he started to lay the foundation for his program. It starts in the basketball offices on the second level of Kovalchick Convention and Athletic Complex and filters down to the locker room on the lower level. From there, it flows onto the court. “We talk about the six core values that we want to drive us every day: courage, humility, unity, serving one another, empathy and passion,” McConnell said. “If you see our locker room, we have them posted up there. We start each practice with a thought for the day and we try to address that. The first month or so when we were just talking about those things, you think those are nice and good things, but now, when the rubber meets the road, you start to see that this is real and that winning will follow and take care of itself.”
The players are most certainly buying in to the philosophy.
“I never experienced a coaching staff that says ‘I love you’ so much, like daily,” senior guard Talen Watson said. “It’s nothing but a love atmosphere when we’re in the gym.”
“Family, that’s our mantra,” senior forward Melanie Todd said. “It really does play a role … because if you don’t love each other, it’s hard to play together. We’re here for each other.”
“We all have a common interest, and that’s winning,” junior guard Lindsay Stamp said, “but we’re coming together as a team, and it’s more of a family atmosphere than it’s been in the past.”
Informed that his players had voluntarily raised the new philosophy during an interview session, McConnell said, “Good. We don’t throw those words around loosely. We’re trying to build that family atmosphere, a culture of team first and caring for one another. I’m glad they’re sensing that and buying into that.”
McConnell is making believers of his players.
“It’ll show on the court,” Watson said. “We love being here. We love each other and love our coaches because they love us. When you have the opportunity to play for something like that, you don’t want to let it go. You don’t want to take it for granted, so we’re going to come out and play hard.”
McConnell has a lot to work on to build his program, but he has a strong philosophy and a good nucleus of talent. IUP lost only one starter — granted, Sarah Pastorek was one of the best in program history — and 10 players from last year’s regular rotation return. Among them are six players who made a combined 135 starts. In addition, Leslie Stapleton, an Indiana native, returns to a starting spot after missing all but the first two games last season with a broken ankle.
Two other local products, Indiana’s Marita Mathe and Marion Center’s Amy Fairman, have been staples in the program since their freshman seasons. Now juniors, they return as starters along with Ashley Stoner and Lindsay Stamp.
Mathe started every game at point guard last season, and Fairman missed only one start at small forward when she broke her nose. Stoner picked up the slack when Pastorek went down with a knee injury late in the season, and Stamp emerged as a scoring terror late in the season once she was inserted into the starting lineup.
IUP also has plenty of depth. In the low post, Melanie Todd started more than half of last year’s games, and Zhan? Brooks came on strong late in her freshman season. On the perimeter, Watson started half of the 24 games she played in when she wasn’t injured, and Marina Wareham, Alexis Aiken and Lisa Burton saw plenty of playing time.
“That’s kind what we try to talk about,” McConnell said when addressing his team’s depth. “One night it’s going to be Linsday; the next night it’s going to be Leslie; the next night it might be Marita. Each day we start practice with a thought for the day, and it’s something that talks about the culture we’re trying to create. (One day last week) it was ‘team first.’ I told the players, these two words sound so simple, but in your experience of playing college athletics, it will be the most challenging thing you ever do to buy into the culture of team first. How are you going to use that? What role are you going to play? You’re here to help us and make us better, so if you do that and have that mentality, then I think we have a chance to experience success because we have players that can contribute and make some plays.”
“One through 15, we all have something to bring to the table,” Watson, one of only three seniors on the roster, said. “We’re goal-oriented and know what we want to do with this team, so every day we look to push and push and get better daily.”
The players are the same. The philosophy is new. What’s different is the way IUP plans to attack on offense. Last year, IUP usually played with three guards and two post players in the lineup. This year, most of the time the lineup will consist of four guards and one post in an up-tempo attack.
“Last year we were more three out and two in,” Stamp said, “and this year we’re more four out and one in. We have more guards than posts out there. We have a lot of people with the ability to score and it will definitely be more spread out, and I think that’s a good fit for us.”
“That’s exciting because it will be up tempo and upbeat,” Todd said. “It’s going to be fun for us and hopefully fun for everybody to watch.”
The goal is to score a lot of quick baskets — within six seconds on a 30-second shot clock — if the defense can fuel the offense.
“No matter what you do,” McConnell said, “it all comes down to taking care of the basketball and taking good shots. Our identity, I hope, will be on the defensive end playing good, tough, hardnosed basketball, and if we do that, we hope to be able to run with the basketball and create some scores. We want to try to just get back and not give our opponent the opportunity to set up. We want to push the ball and advance with the pass and dribble and see if we can score in six seconds. And if we don’t, I hope to see us be methodical and a team that executes well in the half court and runs our sets and gets a shot by the people we want taking that shot. But the first thing we want is to try to push it up the floor.
“I think you can always push the ball and try to run it and try to get easy ones. This group is capable of doing that. That said, we’re still learning each other. We watch film with the idea and vision of how we want to play, and as a staff we’re tweaking all the time, so we’re a work in progress. We’re learning as we go here.”
While IUP has no new players in the regular rotation and only two newcomers on the roster, Stapleton’s return should help fuel the offense.
“Leslie is a huge player for us,” Stamp said. “She’s somebody who can shoot better than anyone I’ve seen in our league.”
“Not only is Leslie a good shooter,” Todd said, “she has such a good spirit. I’ve never seen her down, and she keeps you from getting down and is so encouraging in that way.”
Stapleton averaged 8.0 points as a freshman and scored 20 points in the first two games last year while making 4 of 6 3-point attempts. Then she broke her ankle in practice and had season-ending surgery.
“She’s done well,” McConnell said. “She gets better and stronger every day. She is really going to have a good year for us. Her ability to shoot the basketball really stretches defenses, and she’ll be a really good weapon. She’s coming in every day and working hard and getting up extra shots and working on her game and continues to get better. Our expectation is that she’s going to be one of our key leaders.”
Stapleton was taking steps in expanding her game last season when she went down with the injury. She picked up where she left off.
“We don’t want her to just be a catch-and-shoot player,” McConnell said. “She’s been working really hard on expanding her game and finding ways to score in a variety of ways: catch-and-shoot, coming off screens, putting the ball on the floor and making plays. She’s really tuned in and doing a good job becoming a versatile offensive threat.”
With Stapleton back in the fold, IUP has the chance to put five players in double figures. Mathe, a streak shooter, can bury a lot of 3s in quick order — she tied the single-game school record with seven as a freshman — and she averaged 10.3 points per game last season. McConnell wants her to continue to be that scoring threat, not just a distributor, as a point guard.
“That’s one of our expectations for her,” he said. “We don’t want to play four against five. She’s a capable scorer, so if she has the open shot, we want her to knock it down. We’d love to put five players in double figures, so we’re not looking for her just to be an on-ball defender and distributor; we want her to be a threat as well.”
Stamp, who averaged 11.0 points per game last season in her first at IUP after transferring from Mercyhurst, is coming off offseason shoulder surgery. She scored a team-high 16 points in IUP’s lone exhibition game against American.
“She had surgery over the summer,” McConnell said, “so most of the preseason she has had no contact at all. Just within the last two weeks has she been freed up to do that. For that reason she’s kind of like playing her way back into shape.”
Stoner averaged 8.0 points and 5.1 rebounds last season. She scored in double figures in eight of the last 14 games.
“She really had good fall practices,” McConnell said. “She just plays hard. She’s been a low-post post presence and a good offensive rebounder. Her challenge right now is to play with that control where she plays hard without fouling. We have a little saying: ‘The harder you play the less you foul’ because you’re going to be in the right position if you don’t take a play off. In the first couple scrimmages and exhibition games she’s been a real force on the offensive and defensive boards and has scored the basketball in the low-post area. We’re looking for her to have a good year.”
Fairman might be the starter least likely to average double figures, but she has a history of filling up the stat sheet in a lot of areas. Last season she averaged 8.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 2.2 steals.
“She can do that,” McConnell said. “Our first two scrimmages she definitely did that. She’s a gamer.”
IUP played a scrimmage against Pitt — McConnell’s sister, Suzie McConnell Serio, is the Panthers’ new coach — and played American in an exhibition game, a 76-62 loss.
“I like the way we’re sharing the basketball and moving the basketball,” McConnell said of the preseason tests. “We’re playing really unselfish and making the extra pass and looking for one another and trying to execute the offense. We came out thinking we need to get better defensively. We gave up too many open looks, too many open 3s, some layups in transition and didn’t get connected and hooked up. We want to make people go against our set defense and be tough to score on. The focus this week is that we’ve really got to come together and get better definitely.”
Meanwhile, the coaches and players continue to get comfortable with each other. IUP opens a 3?-month schedule of games Sunday at home against Bluefield State.
“The more I work with them the more I grow to appreciate them and enjoy them because they come to work every day,” McConnell said. “They want to be good, they want to get better, and they want to grow. They enjoy one another and competing. They’ve been a great group to coach from the minute we arrived.”