Nobody could have imagined the excitement and buzz generated last April by the University of Toledo women's basketball team winning the 2011 Women's National Invitation Tournament with six home victories over some of the top programs in the nation.
After winning an outright Mid-American Conference regular season title for the first time in a decade, the Rockets had set out to win the conference tournament and advance to the NCAA tournament. When things didn't go as planned, there was a clear sense of disappointment and frustration throughout the entire program.
The 18-day journey in the WNIT turned out to be just the remedy UT needed and quite the blessing in disguise.
Sell-out crowds at Savage Arena watched the Rockets defeat UNC-Charlotte in the WNIT semifinals and then take down Southern California in the finals, with guard Naama Shafir being named WNIT MVP.
It was an experience of a lifetime for the UT players and coaches, and yet, there is a greater objective in front of them now as the Rockets, preseason favorites to win the MAC West division, open the 2011-12 season at 2 p.m. Sunday against Dayton at Savage Arena.
"The WNIT run was really fun and great," Shafir said Wednesday before practice. "But it's over now and this year we have new goals. We're trying to make it to the NCAA tournament, and that's our number one goal."
Shafir is entering her final season in a Toledo uniform, something she admits startles her because she seemingly just arrived in Toledo from her hometown of Hoshaya, Israel.
Making it to the NCAA tournament has been on Shafir's mind since the beginning of her days with the Rockets, and she's crept closer and closer to making that goal a reality.
"I have one year left to do it," she said. "That would be the perfect way to end my career here in Toledo."
Shafir has taken her game to a new level each year, and UT coach Tricia Cullop said she's seen more poise from Shafir in preseason practices.
"Things aren't rattling her," Cullop said. "We're having our practice guys attack her and double her, and she's really handling it well. But I think that's because for the last three years she has faced a lot of defensive attention."
UT's other two returning starters besides Shafir, junior forward Lecretia Smith and sophomore point guard Andola Dortch, will be counted on for increased production as well with the graduation of forward Melissa Goodall and guard Jessica Williams.
Expected to round out the starting five are senior guard Haylie Linn and junior center Yolanda Richardson.
"It's going to be a team effort," Cullop said. "As good as Naama is, she needs players around her that are willing to step up and hit key shots, just like J and Goodie did throughout their careers."
As a co-captain with Shafir, Smith is ready to lead the Rockets to the promised land.
"I mean, yes, congrats, we won the WNIT last year," Smith said. "But [we're aiming] even higher this year. We want to get to the NCAA [tournament]."
Contact Zach Silka at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @ZachSilka.