#HLWBB Starting Five: Five Different Balls Edition

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Welcome (back) to the Starting Five, your rundown of the key stories in #HLWBB since the last Starting Five post.

1. Mastodons hope to avoid extinction

In some ways, it’s been a routine offseason for Purdue Fort Wayne, which, in the most general terms possible, is a good thing for a squad that’s already a contender and coming off of a good run in the WNIT. The Dons did endure a healthy amount of turnover through graduation, and Erin Woodson’s transfer departure was a modest surprise, though they more than made up for it with a massive portal haul headlined by former Dayton and Ball State point guard Sydney Freeman. PFW also returns the likes of Audra Emmerson, Amellia Bromenschenkel and Jazzy Linbo, so those transfers (and three true freshmen) should enjoy a soft landing. 

On Monday, Maria Marchesano formally announced her coaching staff for the 2024-25 season, a news drop that underscored a certain stability within the chaos that’s necessary to running a successful program in the current era of college sports. Steven Asher, Jazmyne Geist and Quincy Cunningham are all back, with each receiving a promotion up the staff ladder thanks, in part, to Jasmyn Walker moving on to George Washington. Zane Draper, an alumnus of Muskegon Community College and Rochester Christian University, has been added as the director of basketball operations.

The headline for many, however, will be the final assistant coach: recently-graduated Mastodons legend Shayla Sellers. Sellers needs no introduction to Horizon League fans but regardless, it will be fun to have a familiar face remain around the circuit’s gyms – though ten HL teams are likely relieved that she’s safely on the opposite side of the court boundary. 

2. Radio, someone still loves you

I don’t feel like I’ve talked about Purdue Fort Wayne enough in these posts, so let’s stick with the Dons for another entry.  

On Tuesday, Marchesano joined Fort Wayne sports talker Brett Rump for a segment during the second hour of his afternoon drive show. Now, I don’t know about you, but I love listening to these types of media hits, because even if the guest is in their buttoned-up public-facing mode, there’s still roughly a 95 percent chance of learning something you’d never know just from scrolling social media. That percentage might be even higher with Marchesano, who’s as straight of a shooter as you’ll find – whether it’s in her postgame availability or a random July interview, there’s never really much mystery to how the PFW boss is feeling. 

Naturally, her radio appearance was largely pegged to the coaching staff announcement, so the first part of the 12-or-so minutes was devoted to gassing up the staff (my favorite nugget of new information there: Cunningham was on the practice squad in Brenda Frese’s Maryland program only a couple years ago, in 2021-22, and you may recall that Sellers’ sister, Shyanne, was also a Terrapin that season). 

After that came a bit of a state-of-the-team speech. 

“It is hard to follow up 23 wins, it’s hard to follow up a school record,” Marchesano said. “Obviously, we have nine new faces this year, which is a struggle we haven’t had to deal with [in the past]. It doesn’t matter that there’s more talent in that gym now, the chemistry and the cohesion is such a big factor at this level, and we are so far from being in a good spot with that, but we’re also on week two, day seven.” 

More talent? Interesting.

The Dons are going on an international trip this summer, to Italy, which should accelerate that cohesion quite a bit. Incidentally, Oakland’s men’s team began last season with a trip to Italy, and ended it with a Horizon League title and a win over Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament. 

By the way, right after Marchesano hung up, Rump spoke with Lloy Ball, a PFW men’s volleyball legend (okay, it was IPFW back then), who won a gold medal with Team USA at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. There aren’t a ton of Horizon Leaguers who have won Olympic gold medals (okay, he played in the Midwest Intercollegiate Volleyball Association, as most all-sports conferences don’t sponsor men’s volleyball, and IPFW was in Division II for their other sports back then anyway, shut up nerd), so you should definitely check that out as well. 

3. NKU’s Morgan earns U18 AmeriCup silver

If you’ve followed me for any length of time, you know that I’m obsessed with international sports. One of my first long pieces on this website concerned Green Bay alumna Kaili Lukan’s journey at the 2020 Summer Olympics – in rugby. I’ve devoted tons of bandwidth to things like Cleveland Stater Sara Guerreiro’s participation in the World University Games tournament with Portugal last summer, but beyond national teams, the fixation also extends to the various overseas pro leagues where Horizon League alumni have extended their careers.  

My latest foray into this area – albeit an unfortunately brief one, since I didn’t learn of it until the late going – concerns Kamora Morgan, an incoming freshman guard at Northern Kentucky, who earned a silver medal with Team Canada in the FIBA U18 Women’s AmeriCup in Colombia last month. 

Though the Canadian run ended with an 80-69 loss to the United States in the final, a group stage sweep consisted of blowouts against Argentina, Colombia and the Dominican Republic, and wins over Mexico and Brazil in the knockout rounds propelled the Canadians into the last game of the tournament. 

Jeff Hans’ first freshman signee at NKU certainly did her part along the way, averaging seven points over an extremely-productive 14 minutes per game, including a high of 17 against the Dominicans. It’s probably worth mentioning that against a Team USA that included Sarah Strong (UConn), Joyce Edwards (South Carolina), Kennedy Smith (USC) and Jordan Lee (Texas) – four of ESPN’s top ten recruits from the 2024 freshman class – Morgan was a plus-10 in just over ten minutes on the floor. She contributed three points and two rebounds to a fairly-credible upset bid that saw Canada trail by just three at the half, and by seven entering the fourth quarter. 

4. Izzy Knows

We’ve already mentioned two sports that aren’t basketball, along with four different international sports competitions, so let’s keep that energy going with Isabella Geraci, who hooped at Cleveland State from 2018 through 2022 and was an important cog in the first part of the Vikings’ ascent under Chris Kielsmeier. 

Basketball might have been what put her on our radar, but really, Geraci is just a straight-up athlete. In high school, she finished fourth in the state in the high jump and sixth in the long jump as a senior, then later returned to track at USC Upstate after leaving CSU to play her final year of basketball for the Spartans in 2022-23. 

Regardless, her best sport is football, specifically flag football. 

Geraci played both flag and tackle football as a kid in North Ridgeville, OH before stopping after her freshman year of high school to focus on basketball. However, following her five years in college, she returned to the sport by joining a rec flag football league in Charlotte, where she now lives, and mere months later found herself on a 12-player U.S. national team that will compete at the IFAF Flag Football World Championship in Finland roughly seven weeks from now.  

She’s also eyeballing the Olympics in 2028, when the sport makes its debut on the biggest stage available: “I’ve thought about it. That’s the goal as of now,” she said. “Well, after Finland. Short term, Finland, long term, 2028 Olympics. It’s crazy.” 

Scott Petrak did an outstanding job telling Geraci’s story for the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram, even if I’m extremely jealous because it was an idea for a longform piece that I had in the back of my head until he beat me to it (never move by yourself, it’s awful on every dimension, and I’m sorry that it’s had an impact on my fake job).  

More to come on this one obviously, as the IFAF world championships commence on August 25th. 

5. Secrets, secrets are no fun

One of the oddest traditions in college basketball is the so-called “secret scrimmage,” preseason contests that are closed to the media and fans and not allowed any sort of publicity.

Substantially removed from the noble history of John McLendon’s secret game, these affairs are more practical than groundbreaking. They arose from an NCAA rule change in 2005 that attempted to stamp out the grift of exhibition games against teams organized by AAU clubs with shoe company sponsorships. Now, Division I teams can play two preseason contests, which can be either closed scrimmages (or “secret scrimmages,” because that’s a much better name) or traditional, open exhibitions, but they must be against other college teams.

That doesn’t mean that they’re truly “secret,” though. Certain media personalities have earned a reputation for pouncing on leaks and airing the results of these games to an eager public. And good for them to be honest, I tried to do that last season and within 15 minutes of receiving my first scoop, I had like four people furious with me and ended up deleting the tweet. So it seems kind of hard to pull off.

Anyway, it seems like there might be a modest change on the way to that basic setup.

It’s an interesting idea that likely isn’t entirely a positive development for mid-majors, since only large schools would see much benefit from a publicized, off-campus intrasquad scrimmage (think Ohio State doing an event in Cleveland to juice their statewide support, or Michigan State doing the same in Detroit, both scenarios that encroach on Horizon League markets). But beyond that, the takeaway is that you’ll be allowed to publicize whatever you want to publicize, within the expressed limits.

Now will they? It’s easy to see coaches, notoriously squirrelly about any information concerning their teams, incorporate handshake agreements to keep things off the books, even if they don’t have to. Like most things in this universe, we’ll just have to wait and see how it plays out.

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