The Appalachian State women's basketball team opened practice last Wednesday. For the last couple years, the Mountaineers have tried to convert potential into results.
It finally happened last season. App State went 22-14, including a 10-8 mark in Sun Belt play, to earn fifth place in the conference tournament. Appalachian won two games there before losing to Little Rock in the semifinals. The Mountaineers then went on to claim the WBI Tournament title.
Outside of Madi Story, every major contributor for App State is back. And the team is setting its sights on bigger and better goals from this season. Here are Q-and-As with Coach Angel Elderkin and Bayley Plummer, a senior post player, from just before their first practice.
On if any relief comes with finally turning the corner:
I wouldn’t say relief. People say that like, it’s really fun when you’re climbing to the top of the mountain, but then when you get to the top of the mountain, it becomes a little more exhausting because you have so many more expectations around you. So obviously, to have the success we had, is that a relief? Yes. As a first-time head coach, you’re like, ‘Is it coming, is it coming, is it coming?’ And you know the process and you know what you’ve been doing works. Now when you approach a new season, it’s a new team, there’s new dynamics, you always have that element of injury that you can’t control. So you just kind of keep doing what you’re doing, know that your kids are a year older. I think their mindset is excellent. They’re not satisfied. Winning the WBI wasn’t like Oh we’ve arrived. We want more. So that was really good because I was nervous about you lose, you’ve got a chip on your shoulder, but now you win, how do you approach that season?
On how her coaching talking points shift for this team:
I think what we did earlier this summer is we kind of put the WBI Championship in the middle, and I put that as our comfort zone. And I put some things around it that we want to accomplish that we haven’t yet as a group. And I said in order for us to get there, we got to get to our growth zone, and we can’t be the same team. We can’t be that team that won the WBI. Just really talking to them about winning moments, not winning games. I’m in charge of the big picture, they’re not. They’re in charge of really doing things that won’t fail us like setting great screens and communicating on the court. Just trying to create this list of invaluable things for them so then they don’t have to worry about expectations of winning.
On how she grew as a coach last year:
I think for me personally, it was having a pulse for the team and what they needed and what they wanted. And sometimes, I was always that type of coach that grew up in this time where you outwork people, right? You outwork people. That’s how you get what you want. You keep outworking. And sometimes it wasn’t about outworking, it was like, OK let’s shorten practice to an hour but let’s be really focused with what we’re doing, and I think I changed a little bit with that and just being really intentional with that and just being really intentional with what we need to do on the court. And I knew toward the end it was going to be fresh legs, fresh mind. That was going to get us the victories.
On helping Pre Stanley continue to improve:
I think we look at Pre and we’re like she can’t drop off to start her junior year the way she started her sophomore year. But then you also look at players and they click -- they click at a different moment in time, and her timing was perfect to what we needed. I think her mission now is to be the best player in the Sun Belt. So I’m trying to re-frame that and challenge her to be the best LaPresha Stanley she can be and be the best player in this gym everyday, and those things will happen. She stayed up here all summer. She worked her butt off. She was double sessions everyday, whether it was individual or shooting or weights. She’s gained about five pounds of muscle, she looks really good. So you’re just happy she doesn’t relax. She came in winning and was like ‘I want to be player of the year in the Sun Belt.’ OK, because I think when players tell you those things, now as a coach you have that communication and a player in the Sun Belt doesn’t take that possession off. Just really allows you to coach better, I think, in my mind.
On how a coach threads an individual goal into team goals:
I haven’t done it with her, but she’s had this player of the year thing. And over the weekend I thought about it . . . I want to meet with her and say ‘I know that you want to be player of the year, and I’m here to serve you to get you to reach your potential, but I want to talk through what does the best version of LaPresha Stanley look like?' And let’s get to that. And also just remind her that we were able to accomplish what we were able to accomplish last year -- and Bayley was the only one who made a team in the Sun Belt. And I think the reason why we were so good is because we were so balanced. She is one of the most unselfish kids. I think for her, it’s a mindset that we love because she’s working harder, but at the end of the day, she knows that Sun Belt championship would be so much better than player of the year.
On if the Stanley's aspirations surprised her:
It surprised me because she’s so unselfish. It’s like if we were saying ‘Hey, we’re going to work on our assists in practice,’ she would get all the way to the rim and then give it to somebody. She’s just not a selfish kid at all. So I don’t know if that’s just an inner drive, a piece that she can reflect to. But I don’t think it comes from a selfish place at all.
On getting some younger players in the game last year:
It’s interesting because our freshman class -- when you talk about Lainey (Gosnell), Tierra (Wilson), Pre (Stanley) -- when they came in, they got thrown into the fire. Last year’s freshman class, like Brooke Bigott, Haile McDonald and A’Lea (Gilbert) -- A’Lea got injured and then Brooke and Haile didn’t get the minutes that I think they thought (they would get). And so at the end of their freshman year, I had a soon-to-be sophomore lunch, and I kind of kept it real with them. 'OK, you had the opportunity to be a part of a championship team but now the expectation is that you’re getting 10 minutes, you’re breaking into this rotation so we can become a deeper team.' I felt like last year -- and I kept challenging our bench, and it’s one of the lessons I learned throughout the year when we talked about growth -- is that if we would’ve had a deeper bench when we’re playing a Troy or playing a UT Arlington, I think that was the difference. But those kids, their mindset to keep them ready, was really difficult because they were like ‘Am I getting in? Am I not?’ And that was a lot of the postseason discussion. But like a Brooke -- and unfortunately she’s been out of practice with an ankle injury and it’s been a monster injury -- she was somebody that our expectation was so much higher for her to come in and help give us some minutes on the perimeter. So that has hurt us, but I think she has plenty of time in these 30 days to get herself back. Same thing with Haile. But those are two kids that were with our program. You’re watching a kid workout right now, Jackie Christ, who we recruited to have a year of residency with Bayley. She’s just been so -- I can’t tell you how excited we are about her addition just in terms of the post game, she runs the floor, she’s going to foul a lot to start, but she’s got some intangibles that I think (people) are going to be really excited. And then our transfer down there from Cincinnati, she was granted a waiver to play immediately. K.K. Porter, she gives us that size, that athleticism and that power that we lost with Madi. You look at Tierra maybe emerging into the starting lineup. But K.K. gives us the depth of maybe adding a bigger wing. There was another player from Spain (Nora Galve) that was out here that also presents that 5-10, 5-11 big, long, athletic wing.
On if she's relieved to see the program turn the corner:
I mean I think it is definitely a relief to see the program be able to turn around after three years so that was definitely a sigh of relief. I wouldn’t say pressure, but I guess it is, in a sens,e pressure to perform this year like we did last year and take the next step too. We don’t want to stay stagnant in what we had last year. We want to build from that. So I think just a little bit of pressure to perform like we did last year.
On the program's next steps and goals:
Our next step is Sun Belt tournament championship and hopefully a bid into NCAA or something like that would be our next step. Progress on up.
On her experience of helping turning the program around:
It’s definitely been very exponential. It’s been going straight up. But I think we come in here and do the work every day. I think this year is going to be interesting because like I said, we want to match what we did last year, but you never know what’s going to happen. It’s a long season. So I don’t know if you could say the growth is still going to be exponential like you’d hope for it to be maybe in the next four or five years, but you’re not always going to get the turnaround year to year. So I think what we did last year, just try to build on it and be better every year, that’s all you can ask.
On young players getting more time to learn:
I think that’s a lot to the credit of coaching staff too. They’ve built a good foundation in the recruits and who they have here. They’ve really changed the culture since I’ve been here. I think that in itself provides that next step for new people to come in and learn from the older class.
On if she would've enjoyed that early in her career:
I don’t regret anything I’ve done, but I think it would’ve been nice to have a little bit of help or a little bit of experience to tell you how to get to the top. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
On helping to boost Stanley's play:
Like you said, Pre really turned the corner last year. She’s definitely a pivotal part of this team. But I feel like Pre is kind of a lot like me. She’s kind of a silent leader in a sense that we’re not always going to be the loudest ones out there always talking and stuff. But I think Pre can lead by her action a lot. . . She’s upperclassman this year, but her and Lainey will be the lead next year. So I think it’s just important this year to build them up and prepare them for what next year entails with them, being seniors and stuff. Just coming alongside them and trying to give them all the wisdom we can and pass it along to them.
On ending the season with a championship:
I think it was good in a sense of finally feeling a little bit of accomplishment. Like I said, we went from the bottom up. We’ve definitely been at the bottom and now we can see a little bit of the top. We feel like we’ve finally reached the mountain. We can see over the peak a little bit. But like I said, it just felt good to finally feel a reward for all the work we put in.