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Cullop turns to new core with touted seniors gone

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    UT head coach Tricia Cullop om the sidelines of a 2012 game.

    The Blade/Jetta Fraser
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  • cullop

    The Blade
    Buy This Image

ut-women

UT head coach Tricia Cullop om the sidelines of a 2012 game.

The Blade/Jetta Fraser
Enlarge | Buy This Image

Gone is the winningest class in program history. Say hello to three of the most untested classes in program history.

The 2013-14 University of Toledo women’s basketball season will serve as a litmus test in sustainability, measuring recent recruiting efforts as well as the Rockets’ viability going forward as a mid-major menace.

When time expired last Thursday in a season-ending loss to Illinois in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament, so did a sense of comfort felt in recent years watching Naama Shafir squirt past a defender, Yolanda Richardson erase a layup attempt, or Lecretia Smith snare an offensive rebound.

There is reason for pause, based not only on the departure of a class that won four Mid-American Conference division titles but also because of two recruiting classes that have not materialized. The 2011 and 2012 hauls delivered a standout in Inma Zanoguera and a mistake or two, with all others wading through a sea of uncertainty.

Fortifying coach Tricia Cullop’s sixth team at Toledo will be at least four freshmen, and indications are the newcomers will contend for three vacant starting spots.

“Our goal is to continue to challenge for a league title,” said Cullop, a three-time MAC coach of the year. “Losing five seniors admittedly will be difficult, but our returning players are very excited to chase that goal again. Our incoming players chose Toledo because they want that expectation.”

Of seven recruits brought in the past two years, only sophomores in Zanoguera, an All-MAC selection, and wing Stephanie Recker played more than token minutes in the recent 29-win campaign. Gone is point guard Cat Wells, who was dismissed in the preseason, and another defection could be forthcoming.

Cullop said reserve forward Taylor Carver is with the program “at the moment” and added that Carver’s absence in the postseason had nothing to do with an injury.

If Carver’s scholarship becomes available, the staff would likely pursue a point guard, a position Cullop called “a huge priority.” The only experience returning there is junior combo guard Andola Dortch and freshman Michele Hayes, who played limited minutes.

“We’re very excited about the future and even about next season, but I do think we’re going to have to put in an awful lot of work, and it starts now,” Cullop said.

Dortch, the two-time reigning MAC defensive player of the year, will start at either guard position, and Cullop wants to keep Zanoguera at small forward rather than move her into the paint. Incoming talent Olivia Braun and Janice Monakana can play shooting guard and both forward spots, and 6-foot-3 Sophie Reecher will challenge junior Brianna Jones to replace center Richardson.

“What I’m waiting on is to see at the beginning of next year how far some of our players have come in this offseason,” Cullop said. “We already started with conditioning and weights [Monday]. We’re not going to waste a second because we did graduate so much. A lot of players that are returning didn’t log a lot of time on their legs.”

BONUSES: Cullop hit on many of her bonus agreements and will pocket an extra $50,900. The breakdown is: $20,360 for two WNIT victories, $10,180 each for winning the division and for earning regional coach of the year, and $5,090 each for appearing in the WNIT and earning MAC coach of the year.

Contact Ryan Autullo at: rautullo@theblade.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.

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