SU women to rely on captain trio, youth on court this winter

Shenandoah University's Erin French returns as one of three team captains, alongside fellow senior Olivia Callan and junior Kirstyn Arcata, who will lead SU this season. The Hornets open their 2016-17 campaign with a home game tonight against Goucher. Photo courtesy of Shenandoah University

WINCHESTER – Shenandoah University’s women’s basketball team welcomed 10 freshmen to their squad of 17 players for the upcoming 2016-17 season, injecting plenty of youth into a program searching for its first winning season since 2010. But what’s more important for third-year head coach Melissa Smeltzer-Kraft and the Hornets is what lies within the core that SU’s youth encompasses.

Shenandoah returns three team captains from last season in seniors Olivia Callan and Erin French and junior Kirstyn Arcata, a trio that combined for 75 starts (25 each out of 26 games played) for the Hornets in 2015-16.

“Usually when you see 10 freshmen coming it’s usually happening with leadership exiting but we have this unique situation where we have three captains back and three players that played over 30 minutes a game for us – a ton of miles on their body, ton of experience, really playing like true upperclassmen, and they know that they need the freshmen and their talent and their youth and their depth and their height,” said Smeltzer-Kraft, who led SU to a 7-19 record last year and is 15-37 in her first two seasons as head coach. “We’re seeing a really nice balance right now so far.”

The Hornets – who finished 10th in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference last season with a 4-12 conference record and were ousted in the first round of the conference tournament for the second straight year – lost its top two scorers from last season, making Arcata, a 5-foot-10 guard/forward, SU’s returning leading scorer at 9.8 points per game in 2015-16.

French, a 5-9 forward, averaged 8.1 points and ranked fourth in the ODAC with nine rebounds per game last season, while Callan, a guard, led the Hornets with four assists per game while chipping in 6.5 points per contest.

Smeltzer-Kraft said she has “really high” expectations for that trio this winter.

“I do expect a lot from them. Olivia Callan and Erin French are seniors, so they bring this sense of urgency that they haven’t had before to the table. Kirstyn is right behind them despite being a junior. Her sense of urgency is very high,” Smeltzer-Kraft said. “They have this feeling of ‘we need the freshmen but we’re gonna teach them and help them along and they’re maybe the secret to helping us do what we haven’t been able to do in the last few years.'”

Among SU’s newcomers, Smeltzer-Kraft said last Wednesday that 5-foot-9 guard McKenzie Mathis has looked like a prospective starter in practice, adding that 5-foot-10 duo Jordan Sondrol (Wilson Memorial High School) and Ashley Oakes could make an early impact with a returning core that also includes senior Mary Severin, junior Morgan Kuhns and sophomore Mia Moore.

Smeltzer-Kraft said the Hornets’ large recruiting class was a “direct mission” for the coaching staff in the offseason.

“We achieved that goal and now we’ve gotta coach them up from here but we’ve got these seven kids that have been in the system for one, two or now three years, and kids are falling into a system and it just proves that there is something to be said about the process and being patient,” she said. “I think the sense of urgency for us as coaches and these returners lies in winning, and starting to put all this hard work and being process-driven to now being goal-driven and win-driven.”

For those wins to start coming with more regularity, the Hornets will need to improve on their offensive numbers from last season, during which they ranked 11th (out of 12 teams) in the ODAC in points per game (55), 10th in field-goal percentage (34.9 percent) and committed a conference-worst 18.7 turnovers per contest.

Smeltzer-Kraft said much of that improvement on offense will come with being more consistent on the boards (SU ranked 11th in total rebounding and 12th in defensive rebounding last year) to limit opponents to one possession on each trip down the floor. Last season the Hornets ranked sixth in scoring defense (65.5 points per game).

The head coach added that most of the team’s offensive and defensive schemes will remain intact but that the Hornets will “evolve and go further” into that system.

“I’ve always liked to play man. Now that we’re deeper hopefully we’ll talk about pressing as the season goes on,” Smeltzer-Kraft said. “There were many moments last year where we played really well, we just didn’t have the right horses and now I think we do. (There were) moments where we out-shot opponents and now we’ve got kids and people in these places that I think can knock these shots down and hopefully do better within that same system.”

The Hornets open the 2016-17 season tonight with a 7 p.m. home game against Goucher, and Smeltzer-Kraft said SU’s goals include winning more games, reaching Salem for the quarterfinal round of the ODAC tournament and “doing things that we haven’t done yet before.”

“I think for the seniors, they would see their legacy as helping the freshmen to be the best class that they can be over four years, and they see that as they can kind of teach them and give them the tools,” Smeltzer-Kraft said. “I think over four years they might not have done what they wanted, but if they end on a good note this year and they can pass that down, I think that would be their legacy. I think that’s their goal and our goal.”

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com.