Start High School graduate and Toledo freshman Yolanda Richardson is one reason UT is optimistic about next year.
It's hard not to play the "what if?" game when looking back on the University of Toledo women's basketball team's season.
What if highly touted freshman point guard Andola Dortch hadn't torn her ACL back in July?
What if senior forward and co-captain Allie Clifton hadn't come down with a recurring case of plantar fasciitis before Mid-American Conference play even got started?
What if senior forward and co-captain Tanika Mays hadn't hyperextended her knee on a fluke accident during pregame warmups at Ohio in early February?
What if senior forward and co-captain Lisa Johnson hadn't torn her ACL in the last regular reason game at Eastern Michigan?
Sure, the Rockets still finished 25-9, earned a postseason bid for the first time since 2003, and advanced to the second round of the Women's National Invitation Tournament for the first time since 1998.
But what happens if UT had remained entirely healthy - or even almost healthy - for the duration of the season?
"When I look back, I wish we could have had a healthy year, because the potential of this team was incredible," UT coach Tricia Cullop said yesterday. "Yes, we won 25 games but had we stayed healthy, that number would've increased. That's the thing that maybe haunts us a little bit."
But that's not to say the Rockets can't appreciate what they accomplished this season.
In just her second year as head coach, Cullop guided UT to its first outright MAC West Division title since 2001.
The Rockets were also one game away from securing their first NCAA tournament berth since 2001 before losing 62-53 to rival Bowling Green in the MAC tournament final.
"We made the most, I think, of what we had," Cullop said. "I'm just so proud of what our players were able to accomplish. Sometimes I'd be praying the night before a game that they would tell me the next day that a particular player felt good enough to play.
"I talked more to our trainers and doctors this year than I ever have in my coaching career. But our players persevered and did their best not to let anything affect them."
While the graduation losses of Clifton, Johnson, and Mays are significant, the Rockets do welcome back lots of talent.
The nucleus of juniors Melissa Goodall and Jessica Williams and sophomore point guard Naama Shafir, along with the expected offseason development of freshman forwards Yolanda Richardson and Lecretia Smith and the addition of Dortch and incoming freshmen Mariah Carson and Janelle Reed-Lewis, gives plenty of reason for hope.
"I'm so appreciate of those three seniors and what they've meant to this program," Cullop said. "But the core group we have coming back is exciting. We would have liked to win that final game [in the MAC tournament] and get an NCAA bid, but sometimes getting there and understanding what that feels like helps you the next year.
"And I'm hoping that's something we can do in the years to come."
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