When Kate Achter took over as Loyola women’s basketball coach in 2016, she inherited a roster of players she didn’t recruit. Now, three years later, only one player from that first season remains — meaning Achter no longer has to rely on underclassmen in her starting lineup and is now coaching players she thought fit her coaching style.
For the second straight season, Achter returns her full starting five. Led by junior forward Abby O’Connor, junior guard Ellie Rice, sophomore forward Allison Day and sophomore guard Janae Gonzales, Achter said she’s excited to finally have an experienced roster for the first time.
“All those guys had really good summers and they just worked like they wanted to win,” Achter said. “You add the fact that we’ve got juniors and seniors with experience and then you couple that with an experienced sophomore class and a pretty skilled freshman class, and it’s a good recipe.”
Loyola was picked to finish seventh out of 10 teams in the Missouri Valley Conference preseason poll, which was released Oct. 17 and was voted on by coaches, sports information directors and media members. It’s the highest the Ramblers have been picked since the 2014-15 season — meaning it’s their highest predicted finish during Achter’s tenure.
As far as expectations go, Achter said she’s sticking to her five-year plan she brought with her to Loyola. When she arrived in 2016, she only brought back three players after the program was rocked by the departure of former head coach Sheryl Swoopes amid allegations of player mistreatment, The Phoenix reported. Achter came in with a step-by-step plan to rebuild from the ground up.
“You don’t just show up to the NCAA Tournament and go to the dance.”
-Kate Achter, head coach.
The first year — the 2016-17 season — was about laying the foundation. Loyola finished 2-28 that year.
The second year was about recruiting players who fit her system. Loyola went 7-23.
The third year was about building around those core players. Loyola went 13-18.
Year four’s goal is simple: make a postseason tournament — whether it be the Women’s National Invitation Tournament or the Women’s Basketball Invitational, according to Achter.
“To us, it’s always been ‘start small, aim big,’” Achter said. “You just don’t show up at the NCAA Tournament and go to the dance. Now, I think we’ve got enough firepower that we can make a run for it, but we want to put together a resume that positions us to be selected for some of that postseason stuff.”
Overall, the Ramblers brought back 10 players from last year’s team and added five first-year players. Three of the first-years — Sam Galanopolous, Anna Brown and Jala Johnson — averaged at least 14.5 points per game last season as seniors in high school.
Junior guard Ellie Rice said she was impressed with what she saw from the newcomers in the Ramblers’ exhibition victory over University of St. Francis Oct. 29 and she thinks they can be of impact down the road.
“I think from the get-go, they were all really aggressive, which was really cool to see,” Rice said. “We fed them the ball, they bought into our offense and they bought into our defense, which was really nice.”
Loyola also made one more addition this season, bringing Frank Goldsberry aboard as an assistant coach. Goldsberry replaced Michael Scruggs, who left Loyola to take a similar coaching position at Purdue University.
Goldsberry has more than 40 years of coaching experience at the high school and collegiate levels under his belt. He’s spent time at schools such as Miami University (Ohio) and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee since becoming a college coach in 2013, and Achter said his background could be valuable for her young coaching staff.
“He’s such a welcome addition,” Achter said. “His wealth of experience obviously helps us, but … he operates like he’s a first-year assistant and he wants us to be great.”
Loyola kicked the tires on the 2019-20 season with a 71-27 exhibition victory over Division III school University of Saint Francis at Gentile Arena Oct. 29. The Ramblers are scheduled to open the regular season Nov. 5 at the University of Detroit Mercy. Tip-off is set for 6 p.m.