Since she arrived on campus, Tricia Cullop has taken great care in planning team-building activities for her University of Toledo women's basketball team.
The Rockets worked on a Habitat for Humanity project in the summer, had a retreat at the start of practice in Ottawa Lake and will open their season tomorrow in Hilo, Hawaii against Arizona in the Bank of Hawaii Invitational.
"When you're on the road you're held captive together," Cullop said. "We're going to learn a lot about each other and that may be great for our coaching staff and players combined."
Cullop knows that with a depleted roster that includes only two players with more than a year of experience in the program, her first year at UT could be challenging. Her feeling is a united group has a greater chance of success.
So far, the players have bought into the level of commitment Cullop thinks it will take to break the Rockets' string of five straight losing seasons.
"Everyone on the team has the right mind-set," junior Allie Clifton said. "We're all on the same page with wanting to win and knowing that it takes hard work to get there.
"She wants to win a MAC Championship and I feel like she has all the tools to get us there."
UT, picked to finish sixth in the MAC West division in the preseason poll, returns just twostarters and one, Clifton, will miss at least the first month of the season with a partial tear in her knee's patella tendon. The Rockets will be starting a freshman at point guard in Israel native Naama Shafir and sophomores at three other positions.
"We've got some people out on the court who haven't played a lot of minutes," said Cullop, who came to UT after eight years as head coach at Evansville. "They're extremely coachable. I'm excited about the potential of this team."
UT will rely on juniors Lisa Johnson and Tanika Mays to produce in the post. Johnson averaged seven points and 6.5 rebounds last year and Mays, a transfer from IUPUI, had such an impact in the off-season that she was voted a team captain before ever playing a game at UT. Cullop hopes 6-foot-2 sophomore Melissa Goodall's strong practice play will translate into games.
"Our post game's pretty strong," Cullop said. "We've got four post players that are going to be very difficult to match up to, and all four of them are capable of hitting a 15-footer to 3-point range."
Not many in the MAC know much yet about Shafir, who arrived in Toledo just after the fall semester started from Hoshaya, Israel. Cullop offered Shafir a scholarship based on film of her strong international play. She opened eyes with her performance in the Rockets' Nov. 3 exhibition game against the Ohio Legends, leading UT with 15 points, eight assists and seven rebounds.
"If I was a teammate of hers I'd always run the floor on a break because she's got great floor vision," Cullop said. "She has a lot of poise and savvy."
UT plays its first seven games on the road before returning to Savage Arena Dec. 6 against North Dakota. The Rockets' first MAC contest is at Western Michigan on Jan. 7.
Based on the time they've already spent with her and the team, the UT players are excited for their first year under Cullop's direction.
"She makes me realize things about the game of basketball that I've never even thought of," Johnson said. "She knows so much and she's so committed to the team, that makes us want to be better."
- Maureen Fulton