The Loyola women’s basketball team is rebuilding, which can be a long and painful process that takes years. While head coach Kate Achter tries to “turn the ship” of the team by creating a new culture in the locker room, she can find inspiration in the Loyola men’s basketball team, which is seeing the fruit of head coach Porter Moser’s culture change.
The team finished last season 2-28 and was picked to finish last in this year’s Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) preseason poll.
Achter has been using the phrase “turn the ship” to describe the process of getting her team back on track. The long road to steering a team back to success isn’t new to Loyola basketball. In Moser’s first season at the helm of the men’s team in 2011, the Ramblers finished 7-23 and were last in the Horizon League.
The men’s team’s path hasn’t been a straight line, but the program has been trending up since Moser arrived on campus. The Ramblers finished the 2014-15 season with a 24-13 record and a College Basketball Invitational championship. They struggled the following year in 2015-16, going 15-17, but bounced back in the 2016-17 season with Moser’s second winning season with the Ramblers after finishing the season 18-14.
The turnaround for the men’s team came when one player arrived on Loyola’s campus — Milton Doyle. Moser has credited Doyle with changing the culture of the men’s basketball team and showing talented Chicago area high school players that Loyola is an option for them.
Achter agrees that Doyle’s presence on the court helped change the reputation of Loyola men’s basketball but she said she doesn’t think Doyle was an outspoken leader, and her team needs players who are outspoken.
“Milton’s play certainly spoke for itself and I don’t think he by any means was a vocal leader in the locker room, he would be the first one to tell you that,” Achter said. “I think we’re more [looking to] turn the ship by committee.”
Turning the ship by committee means finding players who are good people and good students as well as good basketball players, according to Achter.
“I think if we can keep getting kids that represent the values that we want as a staff and what we want our program to look like, I think that’s when it turns,” Achter said.
Achter and her staff are looking for very specific values in their players and they recruit for those values just as much as they recruit for talent.
“[Our players need to] be a great teammate every single day … playing for one another is a selfless attribute for a kid and it’s really hard to do because teenagers think about themselves,” Achter said. “We want them to be selfless, we want them to be tough and we want them to play really hard with a lot of effort. Those are things we look for in the recruiting process.”
The type of players Achter should be looking for not only need to be good athletes but also students who fit within Loyola’s values as well, according to Loyola Director of Athletics Steve Watson.
“You hear [Achter] talk about playing for others. That’s not just a basketball thing, but a Jesuit thing, as well,” Watson said. “Her players are as happy if not happier when one of their teammates does something good.”
Achter is already finding players who fit her value system in her second season as head coach. In the early signing period of recruits Achter received commitments from three players: Allison Day, Maya Dunson and Janae Gonzalez.
Day was second team all-state for her Ohio high school where she averaged a double-double for her career. Achter described Day’s game as fitting with the values she wants.
“Allison’s game is as blue collar as they come,” Achter said in a press release on Loyola’s athletics website. “She is a great teammate and leader for her high school team and coach.”
Achter described Maya Dunson as a tough player who is never satisfied, which is another one of the attributes she is looking for in her players.
“We love her size and versatility, and feel as though she could play multiple positions for us,” Achter said in the press release. “After she verbally committed to us, she took her game to a whole new level. She is a kid who is not satisfied.”
Janae Gonzalez is a guard who averaged over 17 points a game in high school, included a 51 point game in which she made 14 three pointers. However, her scoring isn’t what Achter is impressed by; it’s her passing.
“Her basketball IQ is extremely high, and that comes from being a true student of the game,” Achter said in the press release. “She is a wonderful teammate that finds much joy in facilitating for others as she does in finding baskets for herself.”
Every team would love to have a player similar to Milton Doyle, Watson said, but he’s unsure if the Ramblers need one really good player to become successful.
“Do they need a Milton? They would love to have a Milton,” Watson said. “But do you have to have that one superstar? I don’t know the answer to that.”
While Achter wants the culture change to be a group effort, she said she knows that basketball’s nature is to highlight players who make the biggest impact offensively.
“Certainly you’re going to have kids that stand out offensively and do more for the program as far as X’s and O’s are concerned, but culture for us is just as much a locker room thing,” Achter said. “We have kids that don’t play a ton that are really important for us in the locker room.”
While Achter and her staff are working to build a strong team culture, wins and losses aren’t necessarily a good measure of how much progress the rebuild has made. This season the team has three goals: finish in the top five in the MVC in fewest turnovers per game, top five in free throw attempts per game and top five in rebounds.
“If we can do that we can climb out of the basement. Those are three simple goals that for us are really effort based,” Achter said. “If we can do that this year then our goals change again in the following year, and we can compete for the middle half of the league which is where we’re shooting to be in year three. In year four maybe we make another step and year five maybe we’re lucky enough to say we’re competing to be top three in the league. But that doesn’t start year five, it starts today.”
Achter and her team are scheduled to continue their season in Gentile Arena Nov. 15 against the University of Western Michigan.