Baltimore, Md.-- UMBC women's basketball begins their 51st season of competition and 33rd in Division I next Tuesday against Gettysburg. The Retrievers finished last season at 5-26, 3-13 AE in eighth place in the conference. This year's edition of the team will feature a plethora of new faces, with a total of seven newcomers in their first season with the Black and Gold.
Head coach Phil Stern begins his 17th season as the Retriever bench boss, knowing his young team can exceed expectations right away, but staying focused will be the key.
"There are a lot of question marks that need to be answered, but we have a good team that is competing at a high level throughout the preseason," Stern said. "We can exceed expectations, but the key will be staying focused throughout the year, and taking it day-by-day."
The Retrievers will be without a pair of pieces from last year in Laura Castaldo and Brittani Burgess. Castaldo led the team in scoring a year ago averaging 12.2 ppg, while Burgess average 6.8 ppg and was second on the team with 5.3 rpg.
UMBC will return seven players from last year's team, including three juniors and three sophomores and one redshirt-freshman. There will be no seniors on the team, but the Retrievers will rely on their two captains, sophomore Janee'a Summers (Bound Brook, N.J.) and junior Tyler Moore (Portsmouth, Va.) and coach Stern says the two of them have already been strong leaders on and off the court.
"Tyler and Janee'a are doing a great job leading this team already. Tyler is now a two-year captain and is a mature leader both on and off the court. Janee'a is someone who leads by example - who always works hard," Stern said of the captains.
Joining Summers and Moore are juniors Te'yJah Oliver (Clinton, Md./Riverdale Baptist) and Lucrezia Costa (Rome, Italy); sophomores Jen Gast (Baltimore, Md./Catonsville) and Kristen Teklits (New Fairfield, Conn.) and redshirt- freshman O'lesheya Braxton (Paterson, N.J.).
Braxton sat out last season while recovering from a knee injury, with the other returners seeing significant minutes a year ago.
Seven newcomers will be suiting up for the Retrievers for the first time. A total of six freshman and one junior college transfer will play for the Black and Gold in 2018-19. The Retrievers are the youngest team in the country with an average age of 19, and have the sixth-most true freshmen with six, behind FAU and Wichita State (8) Vermont, Oklahoma and SMU (7).
"We are thrilled to have all these newcomers here. They have done a good job adjusting to the college game and our style of play. We are excited to see them compete this year," Stern said of the newcomers.
Of the seven newcomers, five are foreign born. Dominika Skrocka (Moscow, Russia) is a junior college transfer from Southwest Tennessee CC who coach Stern says will come in a be a key part of the team right away.
"Dominika is as good a shooter as I have seen in a long time. She made a lot of three's during her junior college days, and will come in and help bolster our offense right away."
Paula Rubio (Madrid, Spain), Silvia Ferreiros (Lugo, Spain), Sariah Penese (Wellington, New Zealand) and Eryn Fisher (Kingsley, Australia) come to Baltimore with a lot of international experience, ready to make an immediate impact for the Retrievers.
"Paula is the most ready right now. She can score in multiple ways and is a mature player. Silvia has a quick shot and can score in bunches. Eryn is a post player who is versatile and plays very hard. Sariah is a pass first guard who can handle ball and create for others," Stern said of his international freshmen.
Joining those five will be Kayla Jackson (Rochester, N.Y.) and Tania Hill (Brandywine, Md./Capital Christian Academy). Both players bring a lot of experience and talent to UMBC and will compete for playing time right away.
"Kayla is a tough post player. Even though she is undersized, she battles and rebounds very well. Tania is a big guard and once she starts to get acclimated to the college game will make a big impact on our team and the league," Stern said.
Last year, the Retrievers finished eighth in the America East, winning a tournament game against UMass Lowell before falling to eventual champion Maine in the quarterfinals. This year, four new head coaches will roam the sidelines at UAlbany, Binghamton, UMass Lowell and Vermont. Coach Stern has been at UMBC for 17 years. The combined seasons of the other eight coaches at their respective schools totals 15 years, so coach Stern knows that there will be a lot of unknowns in the league this year.
"There are a lot of new coaches in the league this year, so there will be a lot of unknowns. However, the coaches that are here are talented and will keep the excitement and strong play the league has seen in recent years," Stern said.
The Retrievers will be entering the first full year in the new UMBC Event Center after playing three games in the venue last year. Stern and the Retrievers have already seen the benefits that a new arena can bring, and it is starting to finally feel like home.
"We are finally starting to feel like the Event Center is our home. We have been here a few months now, and having our offices and practice gym open is giving us a sense of belonging," Stern said of the building. "It is an exciting time for us, and we cannot wait to get a full season in here".
The Black and Gold are primed to prove they belong in the top of the conference, a goal that coach Stern says is within reach.
"Realistically our goal is to get back into the top third of the league, and we can get there quickly. We can make our goal happen now, we just have to take each day as it comes and continue to grow and get better day by day".