You’d never know it from the young, vibrant people who inhabit them, but the lives of college sports programs, even very good ones, are extremely fragile.
That fragility can reveal itself in any number of ways. Often, they’re related to over-reliance on key personnel – head coaches lured away by moneyed programs and star players graduating are obvious cases, while the departure of a key administrator who knew their way around a roomful of boosters is a little more subtle. Other times, they’re related to the ebbs and flows of the calendar, the unending cycle that renews itself every March. Assistant coaches need to be replaceable, almost by definition, but losing one can still lead to decommits and transfers, things that throw a reliable talent pipeline out of order, compress timelines, and build desperation. Teams are a little like expensive cars in that they run better than the other vehicles on the road, until some tiny part fails and kneecaps their performance. It can take years to get the thing fixed, and the head coach or the athletic director may not have years to spare.
Horizon League fans needn’t look any further than Wright State, a program that became the first to truly challenge Green Bay’s women’s basketball hegemony this century. The Raiders captured dual conference championships in both 2019 and 2021, and won a game in the 2021 NCAA Tournament, but then ran into the mid-major curse of excessive success and lost head coach Katrina Merriweather to Memphis. And because she left, so did the assistant coaches and a couple of very good players.
WSU replaced Merriweather with Kari Hoffman, a great mentor on both reputation and results. However, Hoffman wasn’t brought on board until late May and didn’t round out her staff until July, timing that likely damaged the former Cedarville boss’ rebuilding efforts. It took two full offseasons to shape the roster how she wanted, with plenty of bumps in the road along the way. WSU finally started stacking wins again late last season, with the promise of more to come in 2023-24, but few expect them to resemble the team that toppled Arkansas in March Madness anytime soon.
So while Cleveland State may be the defending conference champions, and may be returning reigning HL player of the year Destiny Leo with hopes of building even higher than last year’s 30-win season, make no mistake about it: the Vikings were squarely under the sword of Damocles when assistant coaches Desma Thomas Bateast and Bob Dunn both departed at the end of June.
The sheer magnitude of the issue may not have been quite what it was at the other end of Ohio a couple years earlier, but the stakes were just as clear. An underwhelming coaching staff, something that’s much easier to find in July than in May, might have meant – at minimum – squandering the remaining eligibility of Leo, one of the two best players in school history. Even worse, it might have thrown Chris Kielsmeier’s entire vision for the program offline. The latter situation could eventually be corrected with subsequent staff changes of course, but the sports world tends to be unforgiving to deviations from an upward trajectory, even brief ones. The “they had a great season, but…” narratives then arrive a bit too quickly, pushing everyone on to the next big thing.
Furthermore, the timing of the staff turnover was basically a flat tire on the green and white Porsche, right on the cusp of the summer recruiting calendar. That forced a shorthanded group to scramble for as much coverage as it could muster for the high-stakes races of the megashowcases in places like Louisville and Spooky Nook – while also finalizing the 2023-24 schedule, running summer practices and, oh yeah, looking for new co-workers.
Kielsmeier announced his final staff last week after a frantic couple months of calls, texts and double duty from the remaining assistants, and the Vikings ultimately ended up with a group including three former head coaches, two people who have been around since the current regime’s arrival in 2018, and three Cleveland State alumnae (that last detail is a specific point of pride within the program, as it attempts to build the sort of self-perpetuating ecosystem rarely seen at the mid-major level).
They even, somehow, grabbed a couple promising 2024 recruits along the way.
On anyone’s account, it was a resounding pivot away from a vulnerable moment, made possible by some combination of CSU’s attractiveness as a destination and Kielsmeier’s well-honed recruiting skills. And maybe a little bit of luck.
By early August, Kielsmeier had settled on three assistant coaches, including Frozena Jerro and Shelby Zoeckler. Both, of course, were already long-term Vikings, as Jerro arrived in Cleveland in 2018 and has nearly three decades of coaching experience overall. Zoeckler is less seasoned in total but has been around the program more than anyone, earning two CSU degrees during a steady rise through the ranks that included, most recently, the director of basketball operations (DOBO) title.
The other assistant coach is Melissa Jackson, who surprisingly ended up unemployed this offseason after a successful 15 years at Akron, the last five as the only head coach with a winning career record in school history. While an assistant to Jodi Kest, she helped the Zips to the 2014 Mid-American Conference championship and an NCAA Tournament bid, one of seven postseason appearances during her decade and a half at UA. Someone of Jackson’s caliber being available at all was fortunate, the fact that she was already in Northeast Ohio indicated a time-to-hit-the-casinos sort of charmed existence.
One month later, the Vikings crystalized their other staff positions, including the promotion of Hanna Zerr to Zoeckler’s former DOBO role. Zerr played collegiately at Bemidji State, graduating in 2017, and is entering her second season with the team after receiving a Zoeckler-esque crash course in multitasking over the summer. Recent CSU graduate Angie Lewis was added as a video coordinator, after interning with the athletic department as an undergrad.
A final staff position, the special assistant to the head coach, was a Jackson-level stunner: former Vikings great Chenara Wilson, who played center for her hometown university between 2003 and 2007.
Bringing on Wilson for an auxiliary staff position is akin to racing a unicycle with a Ferrari. She has 16 years of coaching experience to her name, the last six of those at Division II outpost Slippery Rock. After the unexpected passing of SRU head coach Bobby McGraw last summer, Wilson became the acting head coach – and promptly led The Rock to a 15-13 record, the school’s first winning season in 20 years. The East Tech High School graduate has also coached at the junior college level, including stops at Mercyhurst North East and Cuyahoga Community College.
“It’s awesome that we are able to bring Chenara back to Cleveland State, and once again have her in the Green & White,” Kielsmeier said in the school’s release. “Chenara’s personality will allow her to fit seamlessly into our staff, while her connections to CSU will no doubt help our community and alumni outreach. We are looking forward to having another ‘Vike For Life’ on our staff!”
Cleveland State has big aspirations for the coming season, including conference titles and NCAA Tournament wins, and even bigger aspirations for what the program will represent over the long run. But if any of those successes are realized, a major cause will have been the two-month stretch of offseason where the Vikings not only kept their car on the road against daunting odds, but possibly even upgraded it to a better model.