UT coach Tricia Cullop talks to Allie Clifton (11) and the rest of the Rockets at practice. Toledo was 18-13 last season and 11-5 in the MAC West after being picked to finish in last place.
To say Allie Clifton, Tanika Mays and Lisa Johnson have taken a long, winding road to achieving success would be a bit of an understatement.
The University of Toledo seniors got their first experience of being winners last season when the Rockets went 18-13 overall and 11-5 in the Mid-American Conference.
And now that the trio have tasted success, they want more.
"Our main goal is just to win a championship," Clifton said. "That's what we're here to do. Every time we step on the court, that's what's in the back of our minds."
For this senior class, their first two years at UT were a struggle.
The Rockets went a combined 25-35 in the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons, and after their sophomore year, head coach Mark Ehlen resigned.
"It was tough," Clifton said. "We struggled my freshman and sophomore years, but then last year things started to turn around. I'm just excited as a senior to get a chance to hang a banner. That's what I'm here for."
Under first-year coach Tricia Cullop last season, the Rockets began putting things together and caught many teams by surprise.
Lisa Johnson, a 6-foot-1 senior, shoots during practice. The Northview graduate averaged 8.2 points last year.
Picked to finish last in the MAC West Division, UT instead ended the year second in the West standings.
"Last year we were the underdogs," Clifton said. "It wasn't really a challenge for us, from that standpoint. But now people expect a lot from us, and I think that just motivates us more. We just need to work that much harder."
Mays said Cullop brought one key change to the Rockets that made a world of difference last season and allowed them to find success quickly.
"Our style of play is totally different," said Mays, who led the team in scoring and rebounding (12.5 points, 6.3 rebounds per game) last season. "We're more up-tempo and we just get up and down the court a whole lot faster. It's a lot of fun. There's never a boring or dull moment."
With nine returning letter winners and the entire starting lineup back this season, the Rockets have high hopes.
"My biggest focus is trying to make sure that our team makes the same jump of improvement that we did last year," Cullop said. "We can't look back and say we've arrived, because we're far from that. We didn't win any awards last year."
Cullop has kept her players motivated by keeping their eye on the next hurdle they need to get over.
"We would love to win our division," Cullop said. "And we would obviously love to win the whole conference, but I think it starts with that."
In addition to a boatload of returning talent, the Rockets have five dynamic newcomers to aid them in achieving their goals.
One of those rookies is 6-2 freshman center and Start graduate Yolanda Richardson, rated the 32nd-best center in the nation last year by one recruiting Web site.
UT also welcomes 5-7 freshman point guard Andola Dortch, rated the nation's 28th-best point guard last year by one recruiting Web site.
"Now we're a little deeper," Cullop said. "The big thing is making sure our new players are ready to play and our returning players have improved."
So far, Johnson said the team is shaping up well in preparation for their season-opener Nov. 13 against Northwestern at Savage Arena.
"This year we're going to have a bull's-eye on our backs," Johnson said. "We have to step up to the challenges that this season is going to bring us and that means bringing it 100 percent every single night."
The UT men's basketball program is inviting all former players to attend this week's inaugural Toledo Rocket Basketball Reunion.
The festivities will begin with a welcome reception tomorrow at 7 in the Joe Grogan Room of Savage Arena. Players are then invited to attend Saturday's practice from 8-11 a.m. with a tour of the facility afterward.
A tailgate party at the Varsity 'T' All-Sports Pavilion will follow at 5 prior to the UT football game against Temple. Complimentary hot dogs, snacks and beverages will be provided.
For more information, contact assistant coach Nate Tuori at 419-530-7739 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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