As head coach Kate Achter stands on the sideline at practice, there’s a clear focus in her eyes. Dropping to one knee, she watches the women’s basketball team run plays she’s been teaching all year. Players are clapping, cheering each other on; there’s a visible camaraderie on the court.
There’s a confidence far from what an observer would expect from a 2-21 team.
The 2016-17 season has been far from stellar. From a wins and losses perspective, this season could shape up to be the worst since the 2005-06 season, when the Ramblers finished 4-25. With the worst scoring offense and defense in the Missouri Valley Conference, the Ramblers have struggled to make anything work this year.
Achter, analyzing the team’s many weaknesses, said youth is the common denominator for the poor performances.
“When you start with such a lack of experience as we have, day by day [the key] is growth,” Achter said.
When a team loses as much as Loyola has, you’ll often see disinterest or despair start to appear in the players. But as Achter looks around at the team practicing, she doesn’t allow that to happen.
She runs into the drills and shows players how to run them better. She claps her hands and shouts, feverishly searching for the right motivation to get the team in a better place. She said the players aren’t the only ones who have to improve.
“During a struggling basketball season, every day is a challenge,” Achter said. “It challenges your character … competitiveness … [and] your ability to manage people … But it’s also helped me improve my relationships. It’s helped me improve my communication abilities … I know this season we’re getting our butts kicked… but I knew that was going to be the case when I took this job.”
The team lacks depth, among many other deficiencies. Achter said there are few players she can consistently rely on at this point, citing again the team’s youth and inexperience. But there are a few bright spots on the team.
Junior guard/forward Katie Salmon returned from a knee injury sustained last season and is the Ramblers’ leading scorer (8.6 ppg). She’s also the only player to start and play all 23 games. She said the growth of the team is not something fans should expect to happen quickly — the team certainly didn’t think it would.
“Something we talk about is ‘turning our ship’ and we’re a cruise ship, so it’s going to take a while to turn,” Salmon said. “As long as we’re turning little by little, then we’re getting in the right direction.”
As practice winds down, the team meets at center court. They huddle around the Loyola emblem, arms over each other’s shoulders. The visible bond between the team dashes any doubt that the players are disinterested.
“The season was never going to be about wins and losses with us, and I’ve been very clear about that,” Achter said. “No one here has given up, and that’s a credit to our kids. Do you have the toughness to come back and come back when you’ve only won two games? We don’t give these kids a chance to make an excuse about what’s happening.”
To make matters worse, Kiana Coomber is day-to-day after she suffered a knee injury in the team’s Feb. 5 loss to Illinois State. Coomber, averaging seven points per game, said as a leader on the team (despite her young age), her role has changed and she needs to step up to the challenge. At practice, she helps players learn the movements of the drill, shouting in support and being available for her coaches.
Achter said she wants to change the culture of Loyola women’s basketball, and players like Coomber are the type of players she needs to do that.
“We’re making headway with recruiting, rebuilding bridges that [may have] burnt down,” Achter said. “We’ve gotten five kids to buy into a two-win program for next season, and that’s pretty darn good.”
Achter said perspective is the most important element of looking at the 2016-2017 women’s basketball team. The program lost nine players from the year before — a catastrophic blow to any team. As the team walks off the court after practice is over, Achter sits back, reflecting on what went well, and what needs to improve.
“Sometimes [the bigger picture] is hard to keep in mind when you just look at the record,” Achter said. “Does this [struggle] set us up for the future? I think it does.”