#HLWBB Starting Five: I’m Coming Home Edition

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Welcome to the Starting Five, your rundown of the key stories in #HLWBB from the past…however long it took to come up with five stories since the previous Starting Five.

1. Re-troit Mercy

The order of these items usually doesn’t matter, but I have to start with this one, because it’s absolutely bonkers to me and I need to get it out of my brain before concentrating on anything else.

Surely everyone reading this is already aware of what happened at Detroit Mercy in 2020-21, but just in case, here’s a quick refresher. The Titans shut down their season in January that year, when 14 players and their parents signed a letter to UDM administration outlining instances of player mistreatment and potential NCAA violations committed by then-coach AnnMarie Gilbert. Within a few weeks after that, every single player on the roster that season either transferred out (notably including, for our purposes, recent Purdue Fort Wayne graduate Sylare Starks) or quit basketball altogether.

There was a lot that was hard to process about that situation, but here’s something that would’ve been impossible to process: the idea of one of those 2020-21 players returning to Detroit Mercy someday, save for Starks’ trips as an opposing player. Yet that’s exactly what happened on Friday when guard Annika Corcoran, previously a Titan from 2019-21, elected to finish her college career at UDM.

To be fair, Detroit Mercy is in much better shape these days. Gilbert’s dismissal led to a year of LaTanya Collins as an interim head coach, before Kate Achter was hired ahead of last season. By all accounts, Achter has transformed the culture in Calihan Hall, and seems well on her way to guiding the team up the standings a bit as well. Corcoran, who played for new Cleveland State assistant coach Melissa Jackson at Akron after leaving UDM, is certainly someone who can help accomplish that as a nice piece of backcourt depth with a credible three-point shot and the ability to facilitate.

However things turn out for Corcoran and her past and current squad this year, it will be fascinating to keep up with the unexpected epilogue to a dark chapter of the program’s history.

2. Baker the shot maker

Did you think that Youngstown State was done recruiting for 2024 with the recent commitment of Hayden Barrier, their sixth incoming player for next season? NOPE.

Their latest is a big one, literally and figuratively: Sarah Baker, a 6-2 post player via that well-worn Guins pipeline from the West Virginia Thunder. John Barnes and company beat out Horizon League rivals Cleveland State and Wright State, as well as strong mid-majors like Bowling Green, Kent State, Illinois State and others for her services.

YSU always seems to have about eight capable bigs on their roster at any point in time, and Baker won’t be an exception. Prep Girls Hoops’ most recent scouting report on the rising senior at Ryle (KY) High School (they rank her number 8 in the state) said that “she has the size and strength to play with anyone down low, but she also moves so much better than most post players. Very active and she brings so much to the court. Defensively, can block or alter shots. Offensively, can score at the rim, makes great moves, finishes with both hands, makes good passes, and can knock down shots. Excellent rebounding as well.”

Think that covers most of what you do in the sport of basketball. Her page on MaxPreps has a healthy amount of video uploaded, so feel free to judge for yourself.

3. PFW gains NIL collective

While the Horizon League enjoys a partnership with NIL platform Opendorse, including customized portals for each member institution that allow people to connect with student-athletes on individual NIL deals, some schools take their participation in the New College Sports Landscape to the next level. That group now includes Purdue Fort Wayne, thanks to the launch of the Dons For Fort Wayne NIL collective last week. Collectives, of course, are a bit different from something like Opendorse, since they have the ability to collect (oh wait, I just got that) large pools of money from school supporters (most offer monthly subscriptions and put on fundraising events) for distribution as needed, as opposed to brokering one-on-one arrangements.

They’re not the first school in the HL to enjoy the support of a collective, as that honor, as far as I can tell, belongs to Green Bay and Fly With The Phoenix, which launched last summer. Additionally, Youngstown State has had The Penguin Collective since February and Robert Morris’ RoMo Rise came together a few months ago. Still, PFW’s entry is notable, given that the roster of existing collectives is dominated by major conference schools or at least, in the case of YSU and RMU, smaller ones with football teams. Dons For Fort Wayne is banking on the idea that a community can circle the wagons around a mid-major athletic program with basketball as the centerpiece in one of the Horizon League’s two Major CitiesTM that doesn’t have top-level professional sports, and on a level that makes the operation worth anyone’s effort.

It’s just crazy enough to work. If nothing else, the logo is incredible, though I wouldn’t expect anything less from whoever designs things over there.

4. Is this thing on?

I just checked my phone to be sure, but it’s mid-September and somehow we’re still talking about schedule stuff. Last time we spoke, Oakland, Robert Morris and Milwaukee were the three teams that hadn’t released their non-conference schedules yet and…well, they still haven’t. We do at least know that RMU will visit St. Bonaventure on the season’s first Saturday, thanks to the Bonnies making the announcement.

The Colonials absolutely trashed SBU last season at the UPMC Events Center by a 63-39 count, though both squads will look substantially different this season. The Bonnies made a coaching change over the offseason (as tends to happen with teams that lose games 63-39), and brought back Jim Crowley, who coached SBU from 2000-16. Crowley engineered a Sweet 16 run in 2012 while pulling in some national coach of the year honors during his first stint at Bonaventure and while it’s quite a reach to say that they’ll be back on that level this season, it should still be an interesting test as we all try to figure out what the Colonials even are right now.

Meanwhile, Northern Kentucky never actually declared that they were done with their slow-drip schedule release, though their most recent announcement was on August 31st and they now have eight total non-conference games announced, so if they’re not done, they’re very close to it. The aforementioned most recent announcement involves a trip to the Coast 2 Coast Daytona Beach Classic over Thanksgiving, where the Norse will take on Pittsburgh and Chattanooga. NKU hasn’t played either of those teams since most of the current roster was -20 years old (give or take), which explains a lot of the fun of MTEs.

5. Hug your local SID

About a week ago, a man named Randy Jones resigned as Anderson University’s Sports Information Director (SID) after 14 years at the school. He didn’t leave quietly though, as he eviscerated the state of his profession in a release (since deleted, as you might expect) on the school’s official website. Among other things, Jones said:

“I haven’t embraced the rising – and often unrealistic – expectations that many school administrations have placed on SIDs or athletic communicators. I have been very fortunate to work alongside some tremendously dedicated and talented people who have understood what we do and how we do it, but that isn’t always the case. Over the past few years, quality people have left the profession in droves because of the unrealistic expectations caused by additional responsibilities and schools trying to boost school enrollment by adding sport after sport without adding support personnel. We can’t properly do our jobs without the people on the other end being able to do theirs, and a lot of places are simply overloaded.”

I hate the expression “there’s a lot to unpack here,” but there’s a lot to unpack here. Fortunately I don’t really have to, as Jones’ quotes – along with the outstanding Matt Brown’s curation and post about the situation – launched a lengthy discussion about what’s routinely asked of SIDs (which I’m using as a catch-all term for anyone working in athletic communications), the number of hours they put in and, naturally, the rate of turnover in the profession. Read the quotes and replies to Brown’s post above for a taste of that.

It’s hard to overstate how much the SID’s role has changed in the digital and social media age, as schools are now functioning as their own news outlets, they no longer need the help of people with transmitters and printing presses to get their messaging to the public (and, in many cases, they don’t even have those people available anymore). That, of course, means content, mountains and mountains of it. And it’s never dialed back, there’s never less to do than was done last season or last week. It used to be three primary social apps that you had to be on, now there are about five or six (to be determined on Threads, I suppose), with no discernible change in staffing levels. And it’s not just a matter of being present, there’s often someone planted in the org chart saying things like “I’m hearing a lot about this TikTok, we need to go viral on there.” Everybody wants free advertising and the benefits of it, nobody seems to have any consideration for the understaffed departments trying to make it happen.

Jones had something to say about that tradeoff too: “Unfortunately, a lot of resources and most of the focus now is on the hype, seven-second video clips and poorly-worded social media posts, which are a lot of flash and not much substance. No one has time – or wants to – or has the ability – to write the student-athletes’ stories anymore. Record-keeping, accurate stats and history aren’t a priority – until they aren’t there.”

Things are sometimes a bit more palatable at high-major programs, which often have things like dedicated graphic design and video editing departments, but at places like Anderson or Horizon League schools, SIDs have to be passable at all of those skills on their own – not to mention the nuts-and-bolts game coverage and statkeeping – and team personnel often have to pick up the slack if the schedule of someone trying to do their best for seven or eight different teams at once is spread too thin.

I once pined to be an SID, and sent out as many applications as I could for a time. Mercer, Clemson, any of about eight Concordias, I would’ve moved anywhere to put on a polo and be a part of a team. Suffice it to say, that is no longer the case. And really, there’s not a ton that you or I can do about the situation, except for this: be kind. I better not see any of you complain if a recap is late, if there aren’t enough Instagram stories going up, or if the episodes of the official podcast are too sporadic for your taste. They’re doing the best they can, I promise.

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