It wasn’t too long ago when the Brock Badgers women’s basketball team found themselves amongst the worst in the OUA. The 2017-18 season saw the Badgers finish with a 6-18 record, followed by an off-season full of question marks that ended with them parting ways with head coach Ashley MacSporran.
Just seven months after Mike Rao was named the interim head coach, the program won their first playoff game since 2012, and came within minutes of upsetting a McMaster team that would go on to win both the OUA and U Sports Championships.
The turnaround was a remarkably quick one, with Rao attributing his coaching staff, as well as a change in attitude.
“I brought in Cedric [Kasongo] to help with the transformation. All we did was change the way our players acted, our players behaved, and we made them learn that there are expectations,” said Rao. “That’s all we did, we just changed their attitudes towards the game and what to expect out of themselves. We just changed their mindset; the way we practiced, the way we attacked opposing teams, the way we attended practice, the way we attended everything that we did this year — it’s just a mindset.”
Rao being brought on late into the summer made it tough for any recruiting for his first season.
“It’s basically the same team [as last year] with some players that haven’t played for a few years either so we were very happy with the way they performed.”
This new and improved mindset that Rao implemented mirrored that of his star player, Melissa Tatti, who was named an OUA Second Team All-Star for her efforts this season. Tatti finished third in the OUA in scoring with 16.2 points per game, second in assists with 4.5 per game and first in steals per game with 4.1.
“She made everyone around her better. We succeeded because everybody played, and she was a big part of that,” said Rao. “What she allowed us to do is spread out the scoring, spread out our philosophy defensively as well, and she gave us a chance to win as opposed to going for individual records.”
Obviously the question of whether Rao will return or not still remains as he was brought on with an interim title.
“My feeling is I’m working towards coming back, but nothings written yet. I’ve got the job until April so I’m treating it that way,” said Rao.
In terms of what the roster might look like next season, Rao’s staff has been recruiting since November, and has made it clear that nothing is guaranteed.
“They’re going to be finalized in the next couple weeks, but we’ve got some new players. We don’t want to put them out yet because they’re still playing, and we don’t want them distracted, but we do have four or five incoming players,” said Rao. “There’s a lot of people that have shown some interest in coming to Brock, so we’re going to have an open process again. It’s going to be a competitive process, compete for your job. I think that’s the healthiest way to run a team, and everyone’s got to know that it’s a new team next year.”
In addition to the new recruits that will be joining the Badgers next year, a number of young players who either redshirted, or rarely saw playing time this year, will have an opportunity to expand their role.
“I hope they see the direction that we’re going in,” said Rao. “We’re planning to keep that upward climb, we want to continue that and were going to insist that the younger kids do that. There are expectations — the easy part is to come here, and us picking them to be on the team, but the hard part is really on them, now they have to perform. The easy part is saying ‘okay I want to go there I want to play’, but now you have to prove that you belong.”
Among those who redshirted this year is Jenneke Pilling, who Rao uses as an example of a young player who will have a bigger opportunity in the future.
“[Pilling] sat out all year, and I think I was harder on her a lot of times than some of my other players. She was never going to see a game, never going to score a point for us this year, but they’ve got to understand that I’m not looking at this year, I’m not looking next game, I’m not looking a week from now, not looking two weeks from now — I’m looking a year from now.”
“It was a really big learning experience for me,” said Pilling. “I could’ve easily just not come to practices, and just sat the year out completely, but with how the program is growing, it was definitely an advantage for me going into next year already knowing [Rao’s] philosophies and how this team is going to move forward. So as hard as it was I’m really excited to have been a part of this team and get to play with them on the court next year.”
The Badgers expectations for next season are to continue the growth from this season, although there are still a number of kinks that need to be ironed out.
“We have to close out games a little better. We were right there [against McMaster], there was just under three minutes to go and we were down a point,” said Rao. “I think we have to have that resolve within the last few minutes of a game and not get overwhelmed, not get frazzled, and not make the turnovers that we were making. But I look at it as a process and the process has been very positive. I like the way the team handled themselves this year, it was a good group to be around.”