Vikings harness chaotic approach to building depth

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At the end of a winding answer during Cleveland State’s October 19th open practice session and media availability, head coach Chris Kielsmeier admitted that he had no idea which of several Vikings might eventually prove worthy of all-Horizon League honors alongside preseason player of the year Destiny Leo.

“We have so many options that could be that way,” he said. “At the end of the year, we could show that we had four kids in addition to Destiny that should be on a team.”

It’s a good problem to have for any coach. Green Bay, the conference’s historically-dominant program, has long annoyed awards voters for the way their depth has made it nearly impossible to identify individual greatness from a stat sheet. But while the Phoenix juggernaut was largely built on locals playing in The Kress for four years, CSU has gone about things a little differently: by fully leaning into the transfer portal and building a roster featuring players from five different countries.

The challenge of that strategy is that the portal roulette wheel never stops spinning. Even during an offseason that might have been one of the least eventful in the country by some measures – Cleveland State returns its whole coaching staff and three of its regular starters, including Leo – the Vikings still had several gaps to fill. Energy sub Isabella Geraci and versatile forward Isabelle Gradwell transferred out, while all-Horizon pick Nadia Dumas graduated, as did guard Taylah Levy, who had eligibility remaining but elected to move on after missing last season with a knee injury.

Only six returning Vikings saw minutes in 2021-22; less than half of the team’s roster. Three others, Aminata Ly, Julia Hintz, and Faith Burch were on the squad but joined Levy in wearing warmups for every game. The remaining four are new to Cleveland, including freshman Jordana Reisma, transfers Carmen Villalobos and Sara Guerreiro, and juco player Shadiya Thomas.

So even stability comes with plenty of uncertainty, which can frustrate a preseason as a refreshed roster tries to feel its way through new systems while learning to play off of each other, though CSU’s emphasis on versatility and athleticism tends to smooth things over a bit.

“Are you looking to fill a specific need because you have one, or are you looking to find the best player? And for us, it’s been both,” Kielsmeier said. “We’ve had specific needs where we’ve wanted more depth in certain positions, but we’ve also gone in there looking for versatile players.”

“I want really good people and really good players, and if they’re halfway across the world, we’re gonna recruit you. If you’re down the street, we’re gonna recruit you.”

Villalobos, decidedly one of the group from halfway across the world, has drawn early raves from coaches and teammates, both for her flexibility in being able to fit in three different positions and for the way she’s picked up on things, including the Vikings’ aggressive zone defense.

“Carmen is looking great, she has a very high IQ, brings the experience that you look for in a transfer,” assistant coach Frozena Jerro said. “She picks up everything really, really fast and really well. She’s probably, of the newcomers, the one who’s caught on to everything the fastest.”

“She definitely brings her European basketball style here,” Leo said of the Cadiz, Spain native. “I love it, I’m starting to get used to it and I like playing with it a lot. She does stuff that you’re not used to, stuff that defenders aren’t going to see coming.”

Guerreiro offers a similar level of versatility and flair while Reisma, one of Wisconsin’s top-ranked high schoolers last year, is seen as possessing transformative potential.

Though players like Hintz and Ly, who each saw plenty of action with the 2020-21 WBI championship squad, are known quantities to the public on some level, Burch is not. The 6-foot-1 redshirt freshman from Warren, OH with the athleticism of a state meet qualifier in the hurdles injured her knee last preseason and sat out for the year – though she did manage to get ejected from the Vikings game at Milwaukee on January 16th for leaving the bench to help Leo, who had been knocked over on the adjacent baseline.

“[Last] year, she probably sat out at not the most ideal time for an athlete, that first three, four months of her freshman year,” Jerro said. “There’s so much foundational stuff that she misses. Then when she came back, we were so far into the season that it was tough for her to catch up. But she’s doing good, she just has to learn to slow down.”

“She doesn’t understand the system right now,” Kielsmeier agreed. “But when she does, she’s going to make a lot of plays. You want to talk about a motor, a kid that works, watch Faith Burch play. She is as happy and as positive as any kid I’ve ever coached. She doesn’t stop smiling, she doesn’t stop talking, she doesn’t stop wanting to be coached, she just loves the game, and most importantly she loves life.”

“Faith has got big-time talent. She’s got great game.”

With that context, it’s hard to blame the head coach for his inability to stump for any one player beyond Leo. It could be Villalobos or Burch. It could also be gameplan-altering post player Ly or one of last summer’s veteran additions, like Amele Ngwafang, Brittni Moore, or Gabriella Smith.

The constant roster churn, whether due to injuries or the transfer portal, might look chaotic at times. But, when done right, it can quickly build depth too good to get its proper credit.

“We have a lot of returners that are in the system, and we’ve all been able to help the newcomers adjust to our system,” Leo said. “For other people it might look like we’re a whole different team, but we’ve been together for so long.”

“We’re all going for the same goal, winning a championship,” Villalobos said. “We always keep getting better, and we’ll be ready for when March comes.”

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