With the May 1st deadline for entering the transfer portal and gaining immediate eligibility (without a waiver or some sort of exception) now behind us and the end of the spring signing period arriving on Wednesday, it’s as good of a time as any to take stock of how things have gone across the league since March 20th’s WBI championship game, the last time anyone from HLWBB took the court.
Room at the Top
Any discussion of the Horizon League’s offseason landscape probably needs to start with defending tournament champion IUPUI. While the Jags were always going to have a different look for 2022-23 with Macee Williams out of eligibility, the scope of the changes in Indy went far beyond the four-time conference player of the year.
One positive bit of news came on April 11th when Williams was selected by the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA Draft, a first for the school. But even that high was undone rather unceremoniously a mere ten days later when Williams, in a still-unexplained move, walked out of the Mercury’s training camp and handicapped her future professional prospects in the process.
A couple days before the WNBA Draft, Jags coach Austin Parkinson – who took the program from a 3-26 mark the season before he showed up and transformed it into a juggernaut – left for Butler and took his coaching staff across town with him. Shortly after, standouts Rachel McLimore and Anna Mortag, along with star recruit Jessica Carrothers (the 2022 Indiana Miss Basketball runner-up), defected to the Bulldogs.
All is not lost for IUPUI, as Destiny Perkins, Rachel Kent, and Natalie Andersen are expected back, while Teresa Maggio and Brianna Wooldridge remain from a great recruiting class. The Jags also (finally) announced Parkinson’s replacement on May 12th: Walsh coach Kate Bruce. Bruce has a near-spotless track record at the DII level, including four NCAA Tournament bids and a 134-43 record in six seasons with the Cavaliers, and her three stops as a DI assistant were fruitful as well. Notable among those: a 2010-13 stint at Youngstown State where she found success in the often-lean years immediately prior to John Barnes’ arrival, helping the Guins to a 23-10 overall record and a WNIT bid in 2012-13. That breakout season propelled both Bruce and head coach Bob Boldon on to Ohio. Boldon is still the Bobcats’ coach, while Bruce left in 2016 (after NCAA and WNIT bids at OU) to take over at Walsh, so it’s safe to say that the Horizon League has already played a significant role in her career.
There’s plenty of reason to believe that IUPUI won’t be reduced to a complete tire fire (see: the school’s men’s team), but it’s also fair to say that they’ll need a bit of time to retool.
A Song of Ice and Fire
Other league frontrunners like Youngstown State and Green Bay have had much more successful offseasons to this point, largely thanks to adding proven players through the transfer portal combined with minimal losses from their respective 2021-22 rosters.
For Kevin Borseth and the Phoenix, that’s meant a pair of guards with an impressive conference pedigrees including Tatum Koenig (late of Bradley) and Natalie McNeal (Saint Louis). Both were major contributors with their former teams and do a lot of different things well, though Koenig is an elite facilitator and McNeal topped five rebounds per game despite being 5-8. Throw in a young 2021-22 roster that, as of right now, is only expected to lose Meghan Pingel and new UNI signee Ellie Foster (who redshirted in 2021-22) and it’s impossible to not see Green Bay as one of the clear conference favorites at this point.
Reigning regular season co-champion Youngstown State will undoubtedly have something to say in the 2022-23 race as well, despite losing one of the program’s all-time greats, Chelsea Olson. Though the Guins signed one of Ohio’s top 20 recruits for 2022, Mackenzie Hurd, YSU remains a team heavy on veterans, depth…and West Virginians. Apparently John Denver’s country roads led to the Mahoning Valley, as the Guins grabbed Paige Shy from Huntington (and Marshall) last offseason, and that move paid off quadruply when Shy brought some old AAU friends along a year later: playmaker Dena Jarrells, sniper Shay Kirby, and post Emily Saunders all hail from the Mountain State as well, despite playing previously at Chattanooga, Austin Peay, and Tennessee, respectively.
A few other player movement highlights from around the league:
- Wright State did a remarkable job quickly turning over nearly all of the Raiders’ roster after a tumultuous 2021-22 season – in fact nine WSU players entered the portal at the conclusion of the season, as Kari Hoffman attempts to rebuild the program in her image (notably, Destyne Jackson and Jada Wright ended up at Memphis with former Raiders coach Katrina Merriweather). On the inbound side, Wright State added six transfers, including one-time Arizona recruit Bryce Nixon and a pair of standouts from Hoffman’s old Cedarville team, along with six freshmen. Troy, OH native Macie Taylor is Prep Girls Hoops’ top combo guard in the state and an obvious star of the rookie class.
- Southeast Michigan has been another epicenter for Horizon League tumult, as both Oakland and Detroit Mercy will look very different next season. Seven Grizzlies have gone portaling since the start of last season including Kahlaijah Dean, Kendall Folley (who has already landed at East Tennessee State) and Alona Blackwell (who announced her commitment to Indiana State on Wednesday). A lot of the issue can be tied to a bit of coaching uncertainty, as associate head coach Ke’Sha Blanton had to lead the bench for nearly all of the 2019-20 and 2021-22 seasons due to Jeff Tungate’s health issues. Somewhat predictably, Blanton departed for Eastern Michigan’s staff, leaving OU to one of the more substantial rebuilding tasks in HLWBB. The recent addition of proven DI guards Linda van Schaik and Raquel Ferrer-Bernad should help, as should the expected return of Brianne Beatty.
- Detroit Mercy hired former Loyola Chicago coach Kate Achter on April 27th, officially sweeping away the last vestiges of the AnnMarie Gilbert disaster by not retaining interim coach/former Gilbert assistant LaTanya Collins. Achter already has experience rebuilding a program under similar circumstances, given she brought the Ramblers back after the Sheryl Swoopes era that included a lot of losing and a lot of mistreatment allegations, and her contract not being renewed by Loyola after going 18-12 last year (the most wins by the program in over 30 years) was, frankly, stunning. Achter certainly has her work cut out for her – Collins relied heavily on players in their final season of eligibility last year, and several others are looking to transfer – but she’s been successful from this exact point before. Achter’s Ramblers teams were characterized by suffocating defense and great rebounding margins, so the Titans figure to be a tough out even if they can’t wrangle a ton of elite talent for the coming season.
- Northern Kentucky should once again be one of the stronger teams in the conference, as the Norse return their entire core (with the exception of Grayson Rose), including Lindsey Duvall and Emmy Souder. NKU is one of several teams that should be done with their 2022-23 roster, or at least very close to it, a list that also includes Milwaukee and Purdue Fort Wayne (though the Mastodons have added six players, while the other two were largely in maintenance mode).
Vikings Showing Patience
So where does that leave Cleveland State, a team that can fairly think about winning its first conference title since 2010? It’s tough to say with any real precision. CSU almost certainly is among the top three teams in the conference right now, though their exact placement within that lofty group is likely yet to be determined.
Some bad news first: Though IUPUI has imploded this offseason, fellow contenders Green Bay and Youngstown State decidedly have not, after going a combined 3-1 against the Vikings last season. The Phoenix and Penguins both return the vast majority of their production and, thanks to their splashy transfer portal additions, may have already improved, at least on paper. CSU finally hopped in on the action a bit later by grabbing Carmen Villalobos from Hartford, former USF guard Sara Guerreiro, and juco point guard Shadiya Thomas, much to the relief of their more jittery fans.
Even before that however, it’s also worth remembering that the team’s departures from last season haven’t been catastrophic. Of the ten players who typically suited up last season, six are projected to return, with Nadia Dumas lost to graduation and Isabelle Gradwell, Isabella Geraci, and Raevyn Harris lost to the transfer portal (Harris has already signed with Kentucky’s Georgetown College, an NAIA program). The six back for 2022-23 include superstar Destiny Leo, explosive backcourt havoc-mate Gabriella Smith, and Amele Ngwafang, who’s likely in for an expanded role without Dumas around.
And, while it doesn’t grab headlines quite like signing day or pulling a transfer from a legendary program like the Lady Vols, the Vikings will also bring back a couple players who missed the year due to injury, in effect adding players without actually adding them. Aminata Ly and Julia Hintz are known quantities, with Ly especially playing a key role as the 2020-21 WBI championship season drew out. Faith Burch will finally make her CSU debut, where she’ll bring plenty of length and athleticism – she was a state qualifier in the hurdles – to the table. Freshman Jordana Reisma will arrive from Wisconsin and look to carve out a 6-3 sized niche somewhere in Chris Kielsmeier’s post rotation, while Villalobos and Guerreiro can both play in multiple roles.
So for the Vikings, opportunity may truly start at home, though qualified help will certainly always be welcomed.