SU women hope to keep building in Smeltzer-Kraft’s second year

Shenandoah University's Erin French goes up for a shot during a women's basketball game last season. The Hornets begin the 2015-16 season Saturday with a road game at Goucher. Photo courtesy of Shenandoah University

WINCHESTER – Melissa Smeltzer-Kraft learned plenty during her first season as Shenandoah University’s women’s basketball coach last season. She also experienced plenty of “growing pains.”

Making the jump from assistant to head coach in the same program, Smeltzer-Kraft said she realized quickly the adage “Rome wasn’t built in a day” holds very true.

“You think as an assistant you can come in and change the world, and you come in and start chipping away at things and it’s just a little bit more challenging than that,” she said Wednesday.

Among the list of bumps that Smeltzer-Kraft and the Hornets experienced during last year’s 8-18 campaign was a 10-game losing streak early in the season, as well as finding a way to break SU’s “preconceived notion” that it wasn’t supposed to be able to compete with some of the better teams in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference.

Smeltzer-Kraft feels the foundation for Shenandoah’s women’s basketball program was set during last year’s ninth-place finish in the ODAC. This year is about solidifying that foundation and continuing to build the program’s culture.

“I think there were a lot of growing pains in my evolvement from assistant to head coach and I think we’ve worked through those with our culture and our returners,” Smeltzer-Kraft said. “We have eight returners that I think now fully view me as head coach. I have one recruiting class in now that we recruited – Coach (Meghan) Sullivan and I together – so Rome wasn’t built in a day and this is the start of flipping over the kind of hump.”

SU begins its 2015-16 season Saturday with a 1 p.m. road game at Goucher College – the first of seven straight road contests to start the season – and does so with a mix of college basketball experience.

The Hornets are young – guard Ashley McGhee is the team’s lone senior – but they do return three players who started all 26 games last season in McGhee (5.8 points per game), sophomore guard Kirstyn Arcata (9.2 points, 3.3 rebounds per game) and junior forward Erin French (7.4 points, 7.4 rebounds per game).

“There’s one of these things where you can kind of like ride or die on them,” Smeltzer-Kraft said of that returning trio. “They’ve basically seen any kind of situation. They’ve been in a lot of scenarios within the ODAC and against other non-conference foes that they’re very familiar with.”

In addition to the key contingent of returning players, Smeltzer-Kraft said sophomore guard Kanesha Foster has shown improvement after playing one semester for the Hornets last season, and she added that she anticipates freshman guard Shannon Kuhn will “contribute right away.”

The Hornets, who lost leading scorer Holly Chittenden (a 1,000-point career scorer) to graduation, will look to improve upon last year’s offensive performance that saw SU average just 51.9 points per game, the second-lowest mark in the ODAC.

“I think last year we didn’t get as far as I wanted to with the diversity of our sets,” Smeltzer-Kraft said. “But with the lack of (post players) and being guard-heavy, (we’re) trying to be quicker and get the ball out a little bit more.”

Smeltzer-Kraft said the Hornets will continue to be “very fluid” on offense, allowing the players more freedom, a trait McGhee said gives SU plenty of scoring options.

“Out of each part of the offense there’s like so many different looks you can have, so one time we’ll get someone backdooring down and the next play, from the same exact play the same exact way, we’ll get a 3,” McGhee said. “So there’s so many different looks you can get off it, so the defense can’t really scout it and expect to look for something because we always have something else to counteract what their defense is doing.”

Defensively, the Hornets will continue to play man-to-man defense, although Smeltzer-Kraft said SU could show some zone looks if it runs into mismatches due to its lack of size. She added that one of the biggest strengths for the Hornets this season could be its full-court pressure defense.

“I think if we continue to invest in the press, I think that’s something that we can work on and continue to get better and use it as a confidence booster at any given point in the game,” Smeltzer-Kraft said.

Last season, Shenandoah ranked sixth in the 12-team ODAC in scoring defense (60.5 points allowed per game) but the Hornets were last in field-goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to shoot 39.8 percent from the floor.

Shenandoah’s season ended in the first round of the ODAC tournament last season, and the Hornets were picked to finish 11th in the preseason coaches poll this year. Smeltzer-Kraft said SU’s main goal this season is “just get better every day.”

“Right now in year two it’s maybe not as much about wins and losses as continuing to build our culture and solidify this foundation for a longer haul, to be good in the ODAC,” she said.

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or