FORT WAYNE – Saint Francis women’s basketball coach Gary Andrews didn’t think a 38-0 record was possible this season, even with sophomore standout Akyah Taylor in the lineup.
Without the Michigan State transfer, Andrews would’ve figured it be almost impossible.
I would have said it would have been really, really hard, Andrews said.
But there the Cougars were staring at the possibility of not having Taylor 15 games (and 15 wins) into the 2013-14 season when she was lost to the team because of academic issues.
Saint Francis, though, didn’t stop winning and went on to an undefeated, NAIA Division II national championship March 18.
We never knew it was final until a few games left in the season, Andrews said of Taylor’s ultimate fate. She had all these appeals, and we really thought she would win.
It was kind of a shock but one of the things I told the coaches was we still had the talent to win. We kept winning and everybody kept gaining confidence, and we kept getting better and better.
That ability to adjust and persevere in Taylor’s absence is a big reason why the Cougars will receive the 2014 Nancy Rehm Award for contributions to women’s athletics today between the girls and boys games at the 22nd annual Nancy Rehm/Border Wars Classic at Saint Francis.
Originally from Elkhart, the 5-foot-11 Taylor came from a Big Ten program and had an instant impact by averaging 20.9 points and 7.5 rebounds. After 15 games, though, her Cougars’ debut season was over.
Everybody just stepped up, All-American Brooke Ridley said. Akyah is a really good player, so everybody had to step up their roles and we did a good job of that.
It was disappointing, but she was still with us the whole time so that was great.
We had to alter our game a little bit. The bigs knew they had to get on the boards better because she got a lot of rebounds, so that changed.
Saint Francis simply relied more on its senior backcourt of NAIA Player of the Year Skylarr Shurn and Jenelle Wilson.
Contributions also came from Ridley, Kalah Baer, Paige Frisch, Emily Montgomery and Bri Rinehart, among others.
Despite Taylor’s absence, Saint Francis rose to the No. 1 ranking with the unbeaten record and capped off the program’s first national championship with a 75-68 win over College of the Ozarks (Missouri) in the NAIA title game.
We had a lot to lose and a lot of people had nothing to lose, Ridley said of any pressure on the team.
The team is also racking up the honors and recognition, including the Nancy Rehm Award, a mention of Shurn in Sports Illustrated and a trip to Indianapolis in May to meet with Gov. Mike Pence.
Among the returning players for next season are Taylor, Ridley, Frisch, Montgomery and Rinehart.
If we keep our heads level, we will be fine for next year, Ridley said. We still have that target on our backs coming off the national championship so that’s a really big target.