On a day for looking back, Cleveland State looks ahead

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Early Saturday evening, about halfway through Cleveland State’s postgame ceremony to present members of the school’s 2022-23 Horizon League tournament winners with their customary diamond-caked championship rings, Vikings assistant coach Shelby Zoeckler posed for a photo with head coach Chris Kielsmeier, athletic director Scott Garrett, and an expensive-looking display case containing her piece of jewelry.

In any general sense, her picture wasn’t much different from any of the others in the procession of boosters, staff, coaches, and players who also marched to the front of the Wolstein Center’s Viking Loge for their snapshots with Kielsmeier and Garrett to mark the occasion. However, as the photographer signaled that he had what he needed, Zoeckler left the men flanking her by saying “have another one to get this year.”

Zoeckler bleeds for her school and program like few others and it’s likely that she was just showing evidence of the competitor’s mindset, which demands not just one ring, but every ring.

At the same time, she just as easily could have been thinking about starting guard Colbi Maples, who played at Grambling last season and did not receive a ring. Or fellow assistant coach Melissa Jackson, who was on an opposing bench for one of CSU’s 30 wins. Or any of several others new to Cleveland State this year. She may have even been thinking about 2022 graduate Nadia Dumas, in attendance after helping build the program, then running out of eligibility before she could harvest a boulder in exchange for her thankless work with squads that weren’t quite ready for the final step. Zoeckler undoubtedly wants rings for everyone who contributes to her team in some way, and while there’s little she can do about cases like Dumas or Mariah Miller, winning a ring this year and in every one following takes care of a lot of others.

That’s the awkwardness inherent in events that honor the accomplishments of the previous season, given that the year-to-year turnover of anyone’s roster invariably means that some with the team did not win whatever it is that’s being celebrated. Their part in the proceedings isn’t terribly difficult; in the case of CSU’s pregame banner reveal, they simply had to watch Destiny Leo, along with alumni Brittni Moore and Amele Ngwafang, pull a cord that unfurled a large piece of vinyl, then pose for a team photo.

But is there still something they can get out of the experience? What value are those traditions when it comes to the present squad?

“Extreme motivation to get [their own] big ring,” Kielsmeier answered. “I hope that the people who aren’t getting one look at that thing and say ‘boy, I really, really want one.’ This team has got the potential to do it, but a lot of things have to happen, we’ve gotta go to work. So for me, people who don’t get one, I hope they understand how much of an opportunity they have to get their own, and they’re motivated to be able to go out and create their own legacy.”

Whether it was that motivation, a string of recent practices that Kielsmeier characterized as hard, physical and competitive, or some combination of the two, the Vikings shrugged off an uneven start to the season by demolishing Central Michigan 96-57 in between the banner and ring ceremonies on Saturday, an effort reminiscent of many of the victories from the team’s championship run in several ways.

Cleveland State unofficially signaled the end of the clash as a competitive contest when Carmen Villalobos rattled home a wide-open three just ahead of the halftime buzzer. After a handful of twists in the first 20 minutes – the Vikings scored the game’s first 11 points, before CMU’s near-50 percent shooting effort in the second quarter trimmed the score to 29-26 midway through the frame – Villalobos’ bomb capped a 13-3 run over the final 4:09 that gave CSU its largest lead to that point, 44-30. On the play, Leo pulled every Chippewa on the floor towards her, before finding her teammate against the grain.

“The biggest shot of the game was Carmen’s shot in the second quarter,” Kielsmeier said. “We ran that high ball screen with Destiny, and Destiny’s gotta want to give it up the way they defended her. And she did, she stuck a perfect pass, hit a rhythm three. A huge possession in the game.”

Things snowballed from there, as CSU scored the first 17 points of the third quarter, thanks largely to a familiar storm of forced turnovers (four during the run, 24 for the game) and the points that resulted (nine during the run, 32 for the game). By the time Madisen Wardell gave CMU its first scoring of the second half with 5:31 remaining in the third quarter, the Vikings had pushed their advantage beyond 30 points, assuring that the game’s final third would largely be devoted to building experience.

“We talked a lot today about Viking mentality and doing things the Cleveland State way,” Kielsmeier said. “And late second quarter, carried into the third and fourth quarter, that’s the Cleveland State way. The defense really took the game over, we got our transition game going, things that hadn’t been happening those first two games.”

“Every year comes a different way that you’re going to play, and a different way than maybe existing players have played in a system, and [they] now have to make some adjustments. That can be challenging, or you can just trust and believe and know that playmakers make plays. It’s not some rocket science thing that I’m doing. Players that can make plays, you’ve just gotta get out of their way. You’ve gotta scheme well and just let them go make plays.”

“Tonight was really about maintaining some of those fast starts, that’s something we had been struggling with the past two games,” Leo added. “We kept extending, rather than letting them sneak back in, which is something that we’ve really been preaching in the locker room.”

Leo led CSU with 17 points on an efficient but uncharacteristically easy day in the gym, given that she was on the floor for less than half of the contest. Maples, Micayla Perdue and Jordana Reisma joined her in double figures, while Sara Guerreiro offered nine points and 12 rebounds to the winning effort. Every player on the Vikings’ roster enjoyed at least five minutes of playing time, and all but one scored points (the one who didn’t, freshman Paulina Hernandez, nevertheless contributed four rebounds and two blocks).

It was the sort of feel-good outing perfect for a day largely focused on the events of the past, while also offering a healthy dose of promise for some who weren’t in the looping video of Horizon League tournament highlights from March that ran during the ring ceremony. After all, if Zoeckler has her way, they will be central to a different celebratory day next November.

“This is something that we knew we were capable of, it was just a matter of the girls kind of getting confidence,” Leo said. “We still have a new team, we’re still learning each other, and I think this was a really big step towards that. I’m super proud of the rest of the girls.”

“It’s the beginning of something special for the team of this year,” Villalobos offered. “As Coach said, it’s heightened motivation for the girls to keep working towards that day by day, and that’s the goal for this year”

“We want another one.”

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