Cleveland State enters the 2023-24 season in a position unprecedented for the program, that of a defending conference champion that’s also a clear conference favorite in the following campaign.
Sure, the 2023 Horizon League tournament title was the Vikings’ third overall, but the previous crowns – in 2008 and 2010 – arrived through massive upsets by teams that fell short of the traditional “good team” benchmark in college basketball, 20 wins. CSU rightfully earned those trophies of course, but both times they were interlopers in what was decidedly Green Bay’s conference, and the Phoenix slid right back to their usual place as the clear HL favorite before the confetti at the Final Four landed.
This one’s a little different. For the first time ever, Cleveland State will enter their title defense as, at worst, a co-favorite and will have to deal with that frequent champion’s lament of getting their opponent’s best shot every time out. It may be a cliché, but there’s nevertheless something measurable to the idea that winning a championship makes the road the next time around just a bit tougher.
Vikings coach Chris Kielsmeier argues that they’re all pretty difficult.
“It’s hard to get here, that’s not a given, for anybody,” he said at the conference’s media day on September 20th. “It’s hard to get here one time, let alone four years in a row. It’s a testament to our players, our staff, our university, just everything we’ve built as a program.”
Either way, in CSU’s case, there’s a portal-era catch to all of that: less than half of the current roster was anywhere near the Indiana Farmers Coliseum back in March when the Vikings were the last team standing. And while it’s certainly true that players like Jordana Reisma and Carmen Villalobos offered important contributions to that squad, of the six returning players, only Destiny Leo was regularly in the starting lineup.
“Destiny Leo, when you’ve got a player like her you’re going to be good, no matter what.” Northern Kentucky coach Camryn Volz observed, when asked to discuss the league’s contenders.
Volz makes a fair point, but it’s equally fair to point out that Cleveland State had Leo in 2020-21 and 2021-22, and didn’t win a league championship in either season. So the other players might matter a little bit too.
“We do have a new team, and some roles might be stronger they may have been last year,” Leo, the reigning Horizon League Player of the Year, admitted. “Altogether, just putting the pieces together with the new group is something we’ll have to do.”
The members of that new group, including freshman Paulina Hernandez, Grambling transfer Colbi Maples, and former Wyoming Cowgirl Grace Ellis, have experienced plenty of success at various points of their respective basketball careers, obviously. But they’re now suddenly in the middle of circumstances not of their making, whether that’s the bullseye on their backs or the ambitions of a program trying to climb to a new tier of its sport, and they’ll need to get acclimated quickly and thoroughly.
The answer for Kielsmeier and his veterans, late in a hectic offseason that witnessed heavy turnover on CSU’s coaching staff in addition to the player movement, seems to be doubling down on what got the program to this point in the first place.
“We have seven new players, and [we’re] trying to get those seven players not only accustomed to our culture off the court, but [also] learning the system and getting up to speed with a really challenging schedule,” Kielsmeier said.
“I think that we just need to enjoy the process, be together, grow as a team, keep improving every day,” Villalobos added. “That’s a big part of the culture of the team. Just enjoy every day, that’s the important thing.”
“To elevate the program, we need to set our standards high and keep fighting for them. Last year we did a great job with that, but I think we can keep growing in some areas.”
Sticking to the process usually isn’t a bad idea, and championship teams tend to have a monolithic culture that is resistant to the comings and goings of personnel. Early in their NFL dynasty, for example, the New England Patriots gained a reputation for seamlessly assimilating new players, including stars from elsewhere asked to take a lesser role in Foxboro, into their team’s ethos. CSU’s approach carries some similarity to the six-time Super Bowl champs, and the Vikings even adopted the “do your job” slogan made famous by the Patriots last season – though Kielsmeier would point out that he used it long before Bill Belichick.
It also doesn’t hurt to relish the challenges, both familiar and new, that lay ahead.
“You know, we just try to get better every day, keep the focus about that, and know that a lot of people want what we have,” Kielsmeier said. “We have to embrace the ‘hunted’ role, and we’re trying to.”
“I would say I’m excited to be the one that’s targeted, as crazy as that might sound,” Leo shrugged. “We’re excited to get to work, and try to be that person that makes it back again, back-to-back years.”