Loyola women’s basketball staff builds program from the ground up

Loyola women's basketball coaches
Loyola's women's basketball staff coaches during a game against Wichita State

By Allie Burger

The Loyola women’s basketball coaches gathered at Revival Social Club in Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood on a Tuesday night in mid-January after a long week of recruiting. They clinked glasses to commence the meal, celebrating their new 2017 class—the first five women they recruited to join their rebooting program.

But the conversation then cycled through the present and back over the last six months, turning to the future.

The staff, brought together by a 30-year-old, first-time head coach in Kate Achter, is experiencing the growing pains associated with a rebuild. Nine players transferred away from the program last spring under then-coach and WNBA legend Sheryl Swoopes, who was fired last July for alleged player mistreatment.

The new staff is working with a group of women that they did not recruit—a group primarily of freshmen and junior college transfers whose two tallest players stand at only 6-foot-1. They are currently 1-8 in Missouri Valley Conference play.

The topics discussed over bacon-wrapped dates and guacamole were wide-ranging:

On being the worst team in the conference

It began at MVC media days. Achter’s first trip to the pre-season event as head coach turned “one of the most humbling experiences” of the season.

“A reporter asked if I was a student-athlete and if I was looking forward to the season, when I was sitting next to my student-athlete,” Achter said. “No one cares who you were and no one cares what you do.”

The team was projected to finish last in conference, which Achter has had a tough time accepting.

“As I sat there and I watched Drake get interviewed and I watched Wichita State and all of those schools, someone was sticking something in my side and just twisting it,” Achter said. “And as the competitor, that ate at me and it still does.”

Achter said she plans to use the experience, and those she continues to have this season, as fuel going forward.

“Every game that we play, I’m like, ‘It’s okay. You know what? Run up the score now, because in two years, you won’t.’ I can’t wait,” Achter said. “I’m coming after you, here it comes. Here it comes.”

On being such a young staff

Assistant coach Bianca Smith doesn’t see the staff’s youth as an obvious disadvantage.

“I think the fact that we’re not all that far removed from where these kids are, I think it helps us,” Smith said. “I don’t know that there’s anything that we encounter that age would make easier.”

Assistant Maria Noucas came to Loyola from Dartmouth, a program tied with Loyola for fifth-youngest in Div. I women’s basketball. She said that she sees more advantages than disadvantages to working for such a young head coach.

“Keeping open-minded, that’s the biggest part,” Noucas said. “Not that older people aren’t open-minded, but … I think younger head coaches tend to be more collaborative and open-minded than older head coaches.”

Achter wanted to build her staff to embody strengths she might not have mastered yet, due to her lack of experience. However, she did not believe older candidates were automatically more qualified.

“So many more experienced people inquired [for the assistant coaching jobs,]” Achter said. “And they were like, ‘Maybe my age can help you.’ … Well maybe I don’t want the age. Let me learn and fail on my own and gain my own experience. It’s not necessarily what I needed.’”

She relied on recommendations from friends in college coaching to assemble her staff, and also hired Armelia Horton, who she helped coach at St. Bonaventure.

“I think I found the perfect balance,” Achter said.

On coaching a group the staff did not recruit

“It’s very hard for me,” Achter said. “You’re going to get your own kids in there and then … we’ll have a whole new set of challenges. But right now, they’ve got to be more mature, they need confidence from me. They’ve got to fail and figure out how to succeed from that and that’s a process. But if I can’t show them that, then who can? It’s been very hard, very hard.”

It’s a balancing act for Achter and her staff. She makes a point of letting the current squad know that they are her “kids” and that the staff loves them. But she’s also looking forward to bringing in players who match her vision at Loyola.

“People keep telling me and telling our staff, ‘It’ll be okay when you get your own kids in.’ But these are our kids. They’re a reflection of us,” Achter said. “That’s why we care so much and we invest in them … It’s just, they need a lot more than the average bear because they didn’t pick to be in this situation. They’re now on one of the worst teams in Divison I and they have a brand-new coaching staff at one of the most academically rigorous schools in the country. There’s a lot coming at them.”

Seven of the 10 players on the roster are either freshman or junior college transfers. As much as they are adjusting to life and basketball at Loyola, the coaches are, too.

“Our patience has really increased working with this group,” Smith said. “It’s going to help us all grow having to go through this as coaches. When we’re in our fourth year, we can look back and be like, ‘Y’all, do you remember our first year here?’”

On building for the future

Noucas likes to say Loyola’s coaches are in the business of building confidence.

But four of the five staff members are also in the business of recruiting. The five-member 2017 recruiting class is Achter’s first, and the staff has a group chat to stay on the same page while on the road, as they seek specific types of recruits.

“We really just need tough competitors,’” Noucas said. “I don’t know how many times I have said that to AAU coaches. ‘We need them to be talented, but we just need tough, competitive kids. So, if this kid is not tough and competitive, then we’re not doing it.’”

The coaches have an off-court wish list, too.

“Can they help my locker room?” Smith said. “Yes, she’s tough and competitive. She’s going to help us on the court. No question. But is she going to help our locker room or is she going to hurt it? And that weeds out kids, too.”

Recruiting for 2018 is well underway, and the staff continues to build for the long term. But Achter hopes the coaches never forget where they started.

“Later on, if we leave here and go do our own things 10 years from now,” Smith said, “we’ll remember this year and all the struggles and everything we went through and this dinner and be like, ‘We … just spilled our guts.’

“We were dealing with some stuff … but it was worth it.’”

Photo at top: Loyola women’s basketball staff coach during 83-64 loss to Wichita State at Gentile Arena on Jan. 29. From left: Maria Noucas, Bianca Smith, Michael Scruggs, Kate Achter and Armelia Horton. (Allie Burger/MEDILL)