Can the Vikings repeat a historic season with a retooled roster?
There’s something uniquely modern about a Cleveland State team that enters 2023-24 with just one returning starter and six returning players, yet will be nearly-universally considered one of the top two teams in the Horizon League entering the campaign.
Sure, the Vikings are the defending conference tournament champions and won a school-record 30 games overall, accomplishments that tend to carry a fair bit of weight during the following preseason, but there haven’t really been many of the questions typically associated with a team turning over more than half of its roster while also replacing two of its three full assistant coaches. It’s just kind of accepted that things will work out well enough in Chris Kielsmeier’s sixth season on the Wolstein Center bench, a credit to CSU’s earned status as well as the team’s proven ability to find players in the transfer portal.
This year’s batch of newcomers features five players with previous Division I stops, including Grace Ellis (Wyoming), Colbi Maples (Grambling), Brooklynn Fort-Davis (Howard), Mickayla Perdue (Toledo) and Filippa Goula (Saint Francis (PA)), along with juco product Kali Howard and Paulina Hernandez, the Vikings’ sole true freshman. That’s ample experience in place to face what Kielsmeier considers the toughest schedule in CSU history, highlighted by a trip to play megastar Caitlin Clark and Iowa in front of a sellout crowd on December 16th.
“We want really good people and really good players at Cleveland State,” Kielsmeier said at the Horizon League’s media day on September 20th. “However we go about getting that is how we’re going to do it. It just happens that it’s played out the last couple years the way it has with us. Get a good person and a good player, that’s the end of the line. The world of college athletics right now is changing, and you’ve got to show that you can evolve and adapt. I’ve been a head coach for 24 years, and we’re recruiting way different now than what we were five years ago, but five years ago I didn’t plan to do it this way.”
“The chemistry, we feel as a staff, is really close,” he later added on his university-produced podcast. “I’m a firm believer that with a new group, you have to get them to understand each other and connect with each other off the court for you to have a chance to have the most on-court success. Their chemistry is outstanding, and I’m really proud of how everyone’s handled that. System-wise, on the court, I think every coach in the country will say it’s on-the-job training right now, it’s gotta get better, and there’s a lot of things you need to do at a higher level prior to your first game.”
Of course, it also helps a ton when that one returning starter is reigning Horizon League Player of the Year Destiny Leo, who will look to continue building her legacy in the last chapters of a career that may very well end with her number 2 hanging next to Kailey Klein’s 23 above CSU’s home court. As Northern Kentucky coach Camryn Volz recently quipped, “when you’ve got a player like her, you’re going to be good, no matter what.”
Volz is correct, and the Vikings will undoubtedly be good, the open question is whether they’ll be good enough to attain some pretty lofty goals: win the first HL regular season championship in school history, then follow it up with a return trip to the NCAA Tournament, preferably with at least some additional progress towards the Cleveland-hosted 2024 Final Four.
Destiny Leo – What’s left to say about Leo, who ended last season with 1,433 career points, 707 behind Klein’s program record? Everyone in the conference knows her abilities, and that she’ll once again be at the center of what CSU tries to do on the court. So how about this, from Kielsmeier?
“She’s played in our program for four years, and you can’t replicate that kind of experience and ‘it factor’ that I like to call it,” he explained. “But I think the thing that’s important for Destiny, and her and I never have to talk about this, but you can’t be complacent. You can’t think about what you’ve done in the past, [that it] sets you up for instant success or guaranteed success at a higher level. You’ve gotta go out and create it, you’ve gotta make it happen, you’ve gotta work and prepare at that level. It’s really cool when you coach a kid that you don’t ever have to say that to, we’ve never had that discussion.”
Jordana Reisma – Reisma’s introduction to college basketball last season really could not have gone much better, as she played a prominent role on the team virtually from day one, yet wasn’t asked to do too much in a rotation with graduated power forward Amele Ngwafang. Nevertheless, she managed to put together a season worthy of the HL’s all-freshman team – 5.5 points per game on 54.3 percent shooting, as well as 3.3 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per outing. Many feel as though she’s just beginning to scratch the surface of her potential as one of the conference’s dominant post players.
Carmen Villalobos – The former University of Hartford player connected on one of the larger shots in program history early last season, a desperation three to force an ultimately-successful overtime period at DePaul. However, she’s the type of player who can fit well in a lot of different roles, versatility that Kielsmeier loves. So given her size and diverse toolbox, she seems poised to fill a crucial spot on the Vikings with some expanded minutes: the do-everything wing who contributes winning plays both on and off the gamesheet.
Colbi Maples – Maples was Grambling’s leading scorer last year, making her a welcome addition to a backcourt that was brutalized by departures, and an obvious pick to be one of Cleveland State’s leading players. That’s not an unfamiliar position for the 5-8 Arkansas native, who was the HBCU National Player of the Week back in January thanks to 57 points on 23-for-42 shooting in games against Prairie View A&M and Texas Southern. She’s a high-energy, physical guard with the potential to be an all-conference defender, making her an ideal fit for the Vikings’ style, and she also has a healthy dose of experience successfully competing with high-major competition, something CSU hopes becomes handy in March.
“There’s been a line of elite Cleveland State defenders over the years,” Kielsmeier said. “She’s got the makings and the potential to be a game-changer on the defensive end.”
“She just loves life,” he added. “She’s always smiling, always happy, and always dancing. She has a huge personality and lets everyone know how much she loves the game and loves being at Cleveland State.”
Grace Ellis – Kielsmeier has several options on the wing, but Ellis stands out for her broad skill set, her extremely high basketball IQ and for the fact that she started on a Wyoming team that went 23-11 overall in 2022-23, finishing only behind UNLV in the Mountain West Conference. The Australian can do a lot of things well; she has good size and toughness, can run the floor and take people off the dribble, is an above-average defender, and also a very solid three-point shooter (28-for-82 last year, a 34.1 percent rate). She’s also extremely efficient, as her effective field goal percentage last season was 52.7 percent, among the top 15 percent nationally.
“Grace is a proven scorer,” Kielsmeier said. “[Wyoming] kind of utilized her more on the block, we’re trying to utilize her in all aspects, we’re looking for mismatches on the inside with her, but we’re putting her on the perimeter a lot more that what she’s been in the past, and she’s more comfortable out there, really, that’s where she wants to play.”
Brooklynn Fort-Davis – Ngwafang, Barbara Zieniewska and Brittni Moore, all departed, pulled down nearly half of CSU’s rebounds last season, so Fort-Davis offers a much-needed injection of talent within that category. At Howard, she was 11th in the MEAC in glasswork last season, and the owner of a biology degree from the Harvard of HBCUs also averaged 8.4 points per game, a total that often involved putting one or two of her 6.1 rebounds back up towards the rim. Cleveland State may envision a slightly broader role for her on both the defensive and offensive ends, however.
“She can play inside and out and stretch the floor, hit the three,” Kielsmeier said. “She can play physical on the block and be explosive from the high post, though she needs to learn the system and try to settle in and understand where to get her shots.”
Sara Guerreiro – Fresh off of a summer that saw her compete with her native Portugal at World University Games, Guerreiro should once again serve as one of the Vikings’ best defensive stoppers, while also contributing a few buckets along the way. Notably, she’s been to the NCAA Tournament during all three seasons of her college career so far, as last year’s trip with CSU was preceded by two at South Florida.
Paulina Hernandez – The Vikings’ coaching staff is extremely high on Hernandez, a true freshman who was one of the top 2023 graduates in the state of Wisconsin, where she attended Oak Creek High School. CSU tends to rotate post players heavily in hopes of winning wars of attrition in the paint, so expect the player nicknamed PoPo to seamlessly slide into a role not unlike the one played by Reisma, herself a former top Wisconsin prospect, a year ago. However, Hernandez can also add additional dimensions, including occasional three pointers.
Faith Burch – Despite limited minutes to this point in her career (she redshirted as a true freshman, then averaged 8.4 minutes per game last season, mostly in cleanup duty), Burch remains an intriguing prospect due to her elite athleticism and size. She’s a true banger, and offers a nice contrast to the styles of Reisma and Hernandez along with being one of the Vikings’ biggest personalities off the court.
Filippa Goula – Look for Goula to be seen fairly prominently spelling the starting backcourt, a niche that suited Deja Williams well over the last couple seasons. The frequent Greek national team selection was an every-game starter at Saint Francis (PA), where she led the Red Flash in assists while also chipping in 7.0 points per game.
“She’s always happy and always smiling on the court, similar to Colbi,” Kielsmeier observed. “She’s very skilled with the ball in her hands and does a good job of handling pressure and being able to create under that pressure. She also really has the chance to impact the game on the defensive end, and create offense off of that defense.”
Kali Howard – At Hutchinson Community College, Howard was a consistent double-double threat, and a hardworking player noted for her ability to finish near the rim and through contact (she shot just under 50 percent from the floor), though she can play both off the wing or with her back to the basket.
“Kali is an elite offensive rebounder,” Kielsmeier said. “She can go get it. Loves to go get it, works hard to go get it, she’s very aggressive from the high post, and she’s another player that can get to the free throw line for us.”
Shadiya Thomas – After a year of getting acclimated with the Vikings’ system, Thomas’ experiences, both at CSU and prior to her time in Ohio, should be valuable in getting the team’s newcomers ready for November. Though she played limited minutes in 2022-23, her per-40 numbers (9.1 points, 2.8 assists) were very solid and as one of the leaders of a national championship team at Tyler Junior College two years ago, she certainly knows how to win.
Mickayla Perdue – The dynamic Perdue was the Vikings’ first portal success of the offseason, and her style isn’t entirely dissimilar from Leo’s. At Division II’s Glenville State last year, she led the nation in three-pointers made, with her 110 successful tries representing 38.3 percent of her attempts, though she can also stretch the floor and get to the basket, where she has a soft touch around the rim. As great as all of that sounds, there’s one major catch: Perdue is a two-time transfer, as she started her career at Toledo before moving on to Glenville State, so she’ll need an NCAA waiver to compete during the upcoming season. The outcome of that situation is still unknown as of this writing (though reports indicate that waivers have been a tough sell in Indianapolis this summer), but she could represent a major boost to the Vikings’ prospects this season if able to play.
By the midpoint of last year, the Horizon League had essentially become a two-team race between the Vikings and Green Bay, with Northern Kentucky, Purdue Fort Wayne and disappointing Youngstown State primarily serving as spoilers. There’s little reason, right now, to think that dynamic will shift significantly in 2023-24, so Cleveland State’s odds of what they would consider a successful campaign may very well come down to their two or three games against the Phoenix. Of late, Green Bay has won the regular season side of the series, while the Vikings have knocked UWGB out of the conference tournament in each of the last three years. However, Kielsmeier feels like continued incremental improvement within his program can help deliver that elusive dual HL title.
“Every year, it seems to get tougher to accomplish more,” he said. “What have we left out there that we haven’t accomplished? That regular season title, that’s never been done in the history of the school, that’s something that’s very important to the program. Winning NCAA Tournament games, something that’s never been done, something that’s very important to the program.”
“But we don’t focus on those things, we focus on true process stuff. Create your culture, define your culture with the new group, and really go to work on getting better every day.”
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