University of Akron women’s basketball coach Jodi Kest wears a smile these days.
She’s happy with the season her team had on the way to winning the Mid-American Conference East Division title for the first time and adding another milestone: the team’s first appearance in the Mid-American Conference Tournament championship game.
Although the Zips bowed out in the first round of the WNIT with a loss to Duquesne, the future looks bright.
“We won a lot of games. We accomplished a lot of goals,” Kest said Tuesday during an interview in her office at Rhodes Arena.
Kest will admit that luck played a role in the Zips’ first season with 20-plus wins. They were lucky to be free of serious illness and injury for the season, allowing their starting five of forwards Rachel Tecca (this year’s MAC Player of the Year) and Sina King and guards Kacie Cassell, Taylor Ruper and Hanna Luburgh, along with reserve forward Carly Young, to blossom.
“I thought that if we were healthy my top six were pretty special,” she said. “We were one [injured] player away from being average, one illness away from being average.”
The six of them produced a chemistry that provided fuel for success during the season as the Zips ranked first in the conference in offense (75.7 points per game), third in point differential (8.7 per game) and third in 3-point percentage (33 percent).
And they played defense well enough to shake off opponents.
Do not mistake Kest’s current happiness for satisfaction.
There’s more work for her and her team to do. Being one player away from average is no exaggeration on Kest’s part. It happened in 2011-12 when she thought she had a special team. Then Tecca suffered a season-ending injury.
Kest would have loved to have been able to turn to her reserves regularly. But circumstances forced her to play what turned out to be a six-woman lineup out of necessity.
“Other players weren’t ready yet,” Kest said.
She blames that on the rigors of adjusting to life in college — academically and athletically. Expectations will rise now that the team has experienced some success.
“The kids need to understand it’s going to be tougher next year,” she said. “Even though we have the majority of the kids back, people are going to work harder against us.”
That includes her starting lineup.
“The returning players all have to get better and if each one gets better in just one facet of their game, just one small improvement will make us stronger,” Kest said.
For Cassell, that’s showing more pop on offense to complement her abilities as a ball handler and distributor. For King, who spent the better part of last summer working on all aspects of her game, and Luburgh, who Kest said has player-of-the-year potential after averaging more than 22 points per game in the MAC Tournament, she would like to see more of the same.
As for Tecca? How does the best player in the conference improve?
Despite the 18.5 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, she can improve her scoring by developing a 3-point shot.
Tecca should be able to play more minutes next season because she should be completely healed from the surgery to her right knee that required her to wear a brace throughout this season.
The only one missing from that lineup will be Ruper, the team’s 3-point specialist, providing an opportunity for someone who received limited playing time or, perhaps, hasn’t yet arrived at UA.
Kest signed a class of four recruits: Hannah Plybon, a combo guard from Orrville who was the Division III Player of the Year, Hannah Scipio, a point guard from New Albany, Alex Ricketts a shooting guard from Kennedy Catholic in Mercer, Pa., and forward-center Keeana Gary from Fort Wayne, Ind.
Depending how they adjust to the college environment, it’s possible that someone might emerge in the near future.
It’s also possible that they are part of a future during which the Zips achieve equivalence on the court with their male counterparts at UA. Although she’s quick to give credit to others, Kest is part of that.
She has two years remaining on her contract.
Given her accomplishments in building the program into a winner, no one could say that UA shouldn’t consider an extension, considering they did the same for men’s coach Keith Dambrot last summer.
UA Director of Athletics Tom Wistrcill said that Kest’s situation will receive the same annual review as all winter sports.
In the meantime, she can keep smiling knowing that her team is geared up for another special season.
“It helps out in recruiting,” Kest said. “I hope it will get people to come to more games next year because they realize we have a group of young ladies who work really hard in the classroom, but they also work very hard on the basketball court. It’s fun watching our team play.”
George M. Thomas can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Zips blog at http://www.ohio.com/zips. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.