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Published: Saturday, 3/29/2014 - Updated: 5 months ago

Rockets fail to meet expectations

Toledo’s disappointing 16-16 season marred by key injuries

BY RYAN AUTULLO
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Crunching numbers to make sense of on an often puzzling season, University of Toledo women’s coach Tricia Cullop arrived at two conclusions.

Injuries undermined the Rockets from the beginning to the end of a 16-16 campaign. Four players missed at least five games, none more than forward Mariah Carson, who lost her entire senior season to chronic back pain. Altogether the injury report listed 83 game scratches — 78 more than the previous season when the abled-bodied and senior-laden Rockets rolled to a Mid-American Conference regular-season title. Accumulation of nicks and bruises contributed to Cullop declining a postseason bid this year from the Women’s Basketball Invitational.

Cullop’s findings also verified her team’s youth, at least on the bench. In half of its games, Toledo’s wave of reserves consisted exclusively of freshmen, a reflection of the complete absence of a sophomore class as well as injuries stripping the Rockets of veteran help.

Toledo, the sixth seed, won two games in the MAC tournament before falling by 14 points in the quarterfinal round to eventual champion Akron.

"I think had we stayed healthy we wouldn’t have had that kind of year," said Cullop, who enters her seventh season at Toledo with a record of 141-60.

The Rockets in time will be healthy. The lone issue lingering is the undisclosed illness of wing Lindsay Baker, who last played in a game in December. Her status moving forward is unclear.

As for getting older, well, that will take time. Next season Cullop’s team will feature six freshmen and five sophomores, meaning 73 percent of her roster will be in their first or second season in a college program. The remaining four players are split evenly between seniors and juniors.

Forwards Inma Zanoguera and Ana Capotosto, the lone returning starters, enjoyed their most productive seasons in 2013-14. Zanoguera, a second-team All-MAC selection, led the Rockets in points (14.0) and rebounds (8.7). Capotosto acquitted herself well in her rise to starter from end-of-the-bencher, contributing 10.4 points and making a team-most 60 3-pointers.

Cullop, who has gone a perfect 6 for 6 at Toledo producing an All-MAC point guard, must break in a freshman at the position. Mikaela Boyd, a top 20 recruit in Illinois, should be recovered from ACL surgery by early October, at which time she’ll compete with Jay-Ann Bravo-Harriott, a newcomer from London who on Friday was named U18 English player of the year.

Past recruiting misfortunes created a hole at the position.

Cullop acquired two point guards for the 2012-13 season and neither Michele Hayes nor Cat Wells are still around. Hayes, because of a death in the family, left after a year. Wells didn’t make it through her initial preseason before Cullop ran off the Notre Dame Academy graduate over poor conduct.

Hayes (Oakland) and Wells (Winthrop) are receiving insignificant minutes in their second college go-arounds.

Cullop’s gamble on the talented yet troubled Wells dinged the program more than many are aware. After securing Wells as the second point guard in the 2012 class, Cullop rescinded offers the Rockets extended to 2013 point guards. One of them belonged to another Toledo prep standout — Rogers’ Cha Sweeney. Sweeney landed at Eastern Michigan, where she ranked fourth in the MAC in scoring this year and collected the league’s honor for top freshman.

“You can’t look into a crystal ball and know these things are gonna happen,” Cullop said.

Cullop could look to off guards Elena de Alfredo or Brenae Harris to assist at point guard in a pinch. Harris, a University of Michigan import, recently began practicing after sitting out the season recovering from stress fractures in both shins.

The incoming recruiting class, considered by at least one publication to be the best in the MAC, should reinforce the low post, an area of defensive weakness this season. Michaela Rasmussen, a 6-foot-1 Rockets pledge, was named third-team Minnesota. Another Minnesotan, 6-2 center Lindsay Dorr, was an apparent all-state snub, garnering no accolades despite leading the state in rebounds (18.4) and blocked shots (10.2). Cullop’s staff is high on 6-3 center Nancy Kessler of Ontario, and they anticipate continued development from 6-3 freshman Sophie Reecher.

“I think the weight room’s gonna be very critical to our season,” Cullop said.

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



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