Looking glass

Deanna Stevens

Women’s juniors look ahead to stepping into leadership role next season

Junior guard Kerrie James dribbles the ball down the court during Kent State’s 61-58 loss to Bowling Green Jan. 14. James is among the team’s five juniors who are stepping up to help the Flashes during the MAC Tournament.

Credit: Carl Schierhorn

All collegiate athletic teams have the challenge of preparing for the future while staying focused on the present.

The Kent State women’s basketball team is no exception.

While trying to prepare for this season’s Mid-American Conference tournament, team members have the departure of four seniors lingering in the back of their minds. Two of those seniors, forward Lindsay Shearer and guard Malika Willoughby, combine to lead the Flashes and the MAC in scoring, assists, and steals.

But with five experienced juniors waiting to take their roles as leaders on the team, the Flashes are not about to just fall apart. Those juniors are guards Sarah Burgess and Kerrie James, forward La’kia Stewart, and centers Mallorie Griffith and Tiffany LaFleur.

Shearer and Willoughby, as well as senior guards Tiffany Kelly and Kacie Vavrek, are still with the Flashes, and the near future – aka the MAC tournament – is in the forefront of the team’s mind, according to the juniors.

The Flashes have earned a bye in the first round as the No. 2 seeded team in the MAC East Division. They will play Ball State at 3 p.m. today at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. To make it to the quarterfinals, Ball State defeated Akron, 71-46, on Saturday. Earlier this season, the Flashes beat Ball State 68-55 at the M.A.C. Center.

Having the week off to prepare for the game against Ball State and the rest of the tournament was important, Kent State coach Bob Lindsay said.

“I think there were some things we need to work on,” Lindsay said. He said if the team is playing really well, the time off would have hurt momentum, but the time to rest and prepare was fortunate.

Playing in Cleveland gives the Flashes the advantage of having more of a fan base than the other MAC schools, Burgess said, therefore making the court less neutral.

“Just playing on a neutral court is the biggest advantage,” Burgess said. “We’re the closest school to The Q, other than Akron.”

On Friday, the Flashes waited to find out which team they would face in the quarterfinals. While waiting, they prepped themselves for post-season play.

“We’ve just focused on our own team,” Griffith said. “Doing things like execution (on offense), boxing out and all those things that we need to improve.”

The MAC tournament is a familiar place for the Flashes, and this season the team is focused on taking some jewelry back from the experience. According to Burgess, winning a championship and earning their invitation to the NCAA Tournament is the only thing on the team’s agenda.

With the tournament comes a new level of intensity, the juniors said. And coming into games prepared and energetic is a must.

“In the regular season, you can always prepare and get better,” Stewart said. “But in the tournament, it’s one-and-done; there’s a bigger sense of urgency.”

Burgess said next season, the team will be more guard-oriented because three of the five juniors are guards. But members of the team have been getting some practice with stepping up, because of teams double-teaming Shearer.

And stepping up is something that all the juniors are ready and willing to do. Griffith and LaFleur will be the main players taking over Shearer’s spot in the post. But in order to make up for what will be lost, the whole team is going to have to chip in, Griffith said.

“We depend on Lindsay and her scoring,” Griffith said. “I think next season every player has to step up and distribute the scoring.”

LaFleur added that since Shearer’s scoring will be gone, they will have to look for their offense more next season.

The juniors also acknowledged the amount of rebounding and leadership that will be lost.

“We have to step up more in the leadership role,” Stewart said.

But the juniors are not the only players that will be looking to improve the team. Freshman guard Rachel Bennett is the only other Kent State player, other than Shearer, to be named MAC East Player of the Week. Also, freshman forward Samantha Scull put up significant numbers in a few games earlier this season.

Lindsay said both had an inconsistent season, which is typical for freshmen.

Contact women’s basketball reporter Deanna Stevens at [email protected].