Cleveland State Vikings 2021-22 Women’s Season Preview

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Taylah Levy

Vikings primed for another successful season

On January 22nd, Cleveland State stood at 2-7 following a nine-point defeat to Green Bay. And while the Vikings’ schedule to that point was a tough one (IUPUI, Milwaukee, and Wright State were the other losses), there wasn’t a ton of indication of what would happen next: a 7-1 finish to the regular season and a pair of wins at the Horizon League Tournament (including one against that same Green Bay team that witnessed the beginning of the turnaround) to qualify for Indianapolis and finally, after bowing out in the tourney semifinals, three wins over other quality mid-major teams to win the championship of the Women’s Basketball Invitational. CSU enters 2021-22 with one massive hole to fill – all-everything Mariah White is now at Missouri State – but also with almost everyone else returning, plenty of momentum in the program, and a healthy number of proven arrivals.

Newcomers

Amele Ngwafang – Sure to become a favorite among the CSU faithful thanks to her outgoing personality and outstanding effort level, Ngwafang is a transfer arrival from Radford. With the Highlanders in 2019-20, she averaged eight rebounds per game – nearly half of them on the offensive end – and won trips to the line at an elite level. She tracks as a bit of a Nadia Dumas clone, and you can’t go wrong with two Nadia Dumases on your roster.

Deja Williams – Williams, a California export from Long Beach by way of Cal State Northridge, is a shooter. And what do shooters do? They shoot, of course. In her season with CSUN, Williams hoisted 10.1 field goals per game, 6.3 of those coming from behind the arc. All of that led to ten points per game, and a spot on the Big West’s All-Freshman Team. She’s also a capable defender and ballhander, which will certainly prove valuable in the Vikings’ fast-paced system.

Gabriella Smith – The well-traveled Smith, a Chicago-area native, initially matriculated at Ball State in 2018-19 but struggled as a Cardinal. She then elected the juco route, and re-discovered her game in a big way at Iowa Western Community College last season. En route to NJCAA Second Team All-American honors, she shot a blistering 49.1 percent from the floor and 39.1 percent from three. On a team that already has loads of established snipers like Izzy Geraci and Destiny Leo, Smith should provide another option.

Brittni Moore – We’re not quite done with the bomb squad roll call thanks to Moore, a UT Martin transfer who connected on – wait for it – 44.5 percent of her threes as a freshman in 2018-19. While she dropped off some the following year, the Memphis product certainly has the chops to consistently contribute to what should be a central component of CSU’s offense this season. It’s worth mentioning that Moore was a part of a highly-successful program with the Skyhawks, one that went 45-19 and made it to the OVC championship game twice with Moore present, qualifying for the doomed 2020 WNIT.

Faith Burch – The team’s only true freshman, Burch is a long and athletic player from Warren Harding High School who was a state meet qualifier in the hurdles, if you needed evidence of “long and athletic.” She was a walking double-double for the Raiders, thanks in large part to range that extends beyond the arc, and compliments her driving ability and inside repertoire well. It’s easy to see her becoming something of a Barbara Zieniewska type over the long haul as a low-key dangerous player who does everything well.

Lineup

Isabelle Gradwell – Chris Kielsmeier locked in his starting five pretty tightly as the 2020-21 season progressed and with four of those players returning, there’s little reason to think things will be any different in 2021-22, at least initially. Gradwell enters her fourth year as a reliable outside-in player who was the Vikes’ second-best rebounder last season. One thing she does as well as almost anyone in the nation: get to the line. 36.1 percent of her two-point scoring attempts last season resulted in a free throw, 30th best nationally among those who played 15 minutes per game, and she knocked down 78.7 percent once there.

Taylah Levy – Levy, a native of Victor Harbor, South Australia, is an ace at two very important things in modern basketball. First, she’s fantastic defensively, often catching opposing point guards being a little too careless for some easy run-out scores (her six steals in the WBI semifinals against Stetson were instrumental in the eventual ten-point victory). Second, Levy is a clutch three-point shooter who, after some early struggles, found her shot late last season. Her go-ahead three ball in an 18-point comeback win at Youngstown State on February 19th was easily one of CSU’s season highlights.

Nadia Dumas – One of the team’s storylines a year ago was the emergence of 6-4 Aminata Ly, who rarely started but would often wind up on the floor more than Dumas; one notable case was the aforementioned comeback at Youngstown State, which largely transpired after Dumas got in foul trouble early. Nevertheless, the Toledo native remains a heartbeat player with an unmatched work rate underneath, which was worth 5.6 rebounds per game to go with her 9.4 points, almost all of the latter coming on putback attempts.

Barbara Zieniewska – Zieniewska arrived from the juco ranks last season and ended up being possibly the Vikes’ most versatile player, one who improved as the season went along. She can knock down a bunch of threes, as she did in CSU’s Horizon League Tournament win at Green Bay, or she can shift gears and pull down double-digit boards, as was the case two weeks later in the WBI semifinals. She’s a quality secondary option who can blow up two or three times a year to lead the way.

Destiny Leo – Leo, the conference’s Sixth Player of the Year as a freshman, is unlikely to be a repeat winner since she will be counted on this season to step into a larger role. She’s one of the best shooters in both the league and the nation, as evidenced by her 47 made threes at a 38.2 percent clip in 2020-21 (leading to a 51.7 effective field goal percentage), not to mention the 85.0 percent she posted from the free throw line. Leo is a bit more multidimensional than a typical spot shooter though, as she can create offense driving off the wing as well.

Outlook

It’s hard not to like where the Vikings are headed, and also where they are right now. It will probably take a few games for Kielsmeier to sort out his rotations with the depth on his roster, but that falls pretty clearly under “good problems to have,” and a low-stress non-conference schedule will provide plenty of opportunities to tinker. CSU can attack things in a number of different ways. They’re an aggressive and productive defensive team that seeks to produce quick points, there are at least five or six valid and consistent three-point options available, and the addition of Ngwafang to go with Dumas and Ly gives the Vikes as much horsepower as anyone in the dirtier parts of the game.

Is all of that enough to get through loaded, senior-laden teams in win-now mode like IUPUI and Milwaukee to win a Horizon League title? That much seems unlikely, but at minimum, another winning campaign with postseason play should be the expectation.

Miss anything from Preview Week? Check it all out below:

Predictions
Preseason All-League Teams Preseason Individual Awards
If we had an All-Newcomer Team…
Women’s Preseason PollWomen’s Preseason All-League Teams
How’d we do? #HLWBB Preseason Poll

Podcasts
Comparing notes with Justin Kinner

Team Previews
Cleveland State • Wright State • Milwaukee • Detroit Mercy
Northern KentuckyOaklandPurdue Fort WayneYoungstown State
UICRobert Morris • Green Bay • IUPUI
Green Bay (WBB)Cleveland State (WBB)

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Cleveland State MBA student and marketing manager by day, #HLWBB by night (and sometimes by day too, don't tell my boss). Follow me on Twitter for regular news and updates from CSU and around the league when there isn't a post covering it, and I'll see you at your favorite Horizon League arena soon.

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