After the disaster that was the 2017-18 women’s basketball season, the program has seen an impressive amount of positive change in such a short period of time. Former head coach Ashley MacSporran parted ways with the program after a disappointing 6-24 season in 2018, allowing Mike Rao — who was an assistant on former men’s head coach Charles Kissi’s staff — to take over the women’s program.
Along with Rao, the Badgers saw the return of their best player, Melissa Tatti, after she transferred to Ryerson for the 2017-18 year. Tatti was named to the OUA All-Rookie team in 2015 and was named an All-Star the following year. Her one-year hiatus coincided with Brock’s worst season in over a decade.
With MacSporran out and Rao in, Tatti came back to Brock and was named an All-Star yet again last season. In Rao’s first season as head coach, the Badgers doubled their win total from 2018 and finished with a 12-14 record, good enough for the No. 4 seed in the OUA West.
The Badgers went on to win their first playoff game since 2012, beating the Laurier Golden Hawks in the first round. They ultimately lost to McMaster in the semifinals, but came awfully close to upsetting a Marauders team that went on to win both the provincial and national championships (Brock trailed by just three points heading into the fourth quarter). Rao was rewarded with a three-year contract extension this summer. While it is tough to translate last years’ playoff run into future success, Rao would like his team to build off of his teams’ strong finish from a season ago.
“I like the build up from last year but I don’t know if it can be recorded into wins and losses. What I look at is the overall effort of the team, so I’m looking at if we play hard, that’s an expectation that we need to build on. In terms of development, both personal and team development, that’s what we’re going to strive for. We want to get better from that aspect.”
While the Badgers did win 12 games last year, they did have significant weaknesses that were exposed by stronger opponents. For one, they were incredibly undersized — their starting center was 5’10 Courtney McPherson (who graduated this past spring), and as a result would often have to throw out lineups that saw five guards/wings all 5’8 or under. They were often outrebounded, and when going up against teams like Ryerson, who’s shortest starter was 5’10 last year, were at a tremendous disadvantage from the jump.
To combat this, Rao and his staff brought in a number of tall recruits this summer, most notably former NCAA DI center Sam Keltos, who transferred over from St. Francis College in Brooklyn. At 6’3, the St. Catharines native provides length and stability in the paint that the Badgers did not have a season ago. Other recruits include 6’0 forward Kyanna Thompson and 5’11 forward Destiny Paquin. Along with returnees Sofia Croce and Eden Ferraro (5’10 and 6’1), Rao will have plenty of options when it comes to his frontline.
“They definitely give us the height and mobility that we needed,” said Rao. “Our inside presence has to be much greater [than last year] for us to be more effective so that’s a key for us and they’re getting there. We also brought in (5’10) Nicole Venhuizen who’s trying to fill that spot, as well as (6’0) Mary Ivison. Sofia is getting better as well so we brought in multiple people to fill that spot.”
This newfound luxury will allow Rao some flexibility with his lineups moving forward.
“Can we go bigger at times? I think we may be able to, but that’s going to come with time. Then we can do a lot more things defensively, I think, rather than always having to stay with speed. At times it’ll give us the ability to switch some people defensively which will make us more effective.”
While the new recruits will certainly bring some excitement to the team, the heart and soul of the Badgers still lies with Melissa Tatti. She led the OUA in both steals and assists last year, and was third in scoring. In this her final season, Rao will once again turn to Tatti to lead the offence.
“Her blueprint is all over this team,” said Rao. “She’s the quarterback of the team, she calls a lot of sets, she drives a lot of our offensive strategies. Will she call her number, yeah for sure, will things go through her, yes they will.”
Aside from their lack of height a season ago, another big weakness the Badgers had was their reliance on their backcourt. Along with Tatti and Kristin Gallant, the two combined to create virtually every basket; oftentimes you’d see three players standing around as Tatti and Gallant were Rao’s only playmakers.
As the primary ball handler, a lot of the work fell on Tatti’s shoulders, resulting in an extensive amount of playing time. She played the most minutes in the OUA last year with over 900, playing in 94 percent of her teams’ minutes. With a more balanced roster this year, Rao will make sure to watch her playing time.
“We have to save her for the long haul, I don’t know if I can play her as much as I did last year because it’s so hard on her, so I’m looking to alleviate some of that pressure off her. Will other players evolve? Most definitely; you’ll see us share the ball a hell of a lot more too, because we have pieces that are more developed this year.”
The Badgers were extremely top-heavy last year; this season, they are a much deeper team, and Rao will look to use this to his advantage. As previously mentioned, Tatti and Gallant form a formidable backcourt pairing, and along with Keltos and Thompson up front, look to pose a threat on both ends. The Badgers will also look to second-year wing Meagan Charbonneau to play a much bigger role; she led the way with 20 points in the Badgers final preseason game last week. Jessica Morris, Elise Euale, Jenneke Pilling and Taylor Cumming will all be looked at to fill the wings at some point.
“I’m thinking that I can rely on more players [this year] than I have in the past, and that’s for a multitude of reasons: one, because we’ve been together longer, and two, because there’s people who are coming into a situation that’s a little bit new, so they’re kind of adapting to our way of thinking and our way of playing. As a coach I feel more comfortable with more players.”
The Badgers open up their season this Friday night against the Ryerson Rams in the Bob Davis Gym at 6:00 p.m. Tickets can be found at gobadgers.ca, or brocku.universitytickets.com.