In former head coach Bobbie Kelsey’s first season, the Badgers went 9-20, including a 5-11 record in Big Ten play. She inherited a team with three established seniors and three juniors to take with her into the next season, having both upperclassmen and a young group of underclassmen—five freshmen alone—to build the program around.
However, Kelsey went on to finish 47-100 in her career at UW, failing to win more than 12 games in any of her five seasons. Her last season in 2015-2016 included a seven-game losing streak to conclude her worst season at 7-22 overall.
On March 31st, Jonathan Tsipis of George Washington was named the seventh head coach in program history. Along with an Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year award and experience from Notre Dame—where he helped develop Skylar Diggins—Tsipis looked ready to groom the five incoming freshmen he inherited from coach Kelsey.
He even added on a point guard from Ontario named Kendra Van Leeuwen for good measure, upping the team’s total of freshman to six.
The coach came into the program not only with an arsenal of freshman, but now-proven mainstays for the team, like sophomore forward Marsha Howard and junior guard Cayla McMorris. His only player who had played a large number of minutes coming into the season was redshirt senior Avyanna Young, and she had played two years at UW-Milwaukee before transferring.
Kelsey, on the other hand, had three seniors who had been with the program three years before she took over.
While the current Badgers have gone through a gauntlet of Big Ten play—which included a 10-game losing streak—just securing their first Big Ten win of the season last Thursday, their record now stands at 6-19 following a loss at Michigan.
For some, that record shows a team that isn’t very good. Yet the story of the season has never been about wins, it’s about establishing how the program as a whole can improve.
“My job as the coach is for us to improve the team,” said Tsipis following the tenth straight loss. “As much as we’d love to have a win, I think … how do we learn from this … that’s continuing to take steps forward.”
Looking from the outside, a tenth straight loss would seem shattering to some—not for Tsipis.
“Whether it’s two, four, I don’t keep track.”
For a team that has six freshmen—eight new players overall—and a new head coach at the helm, high expectations for a team coming off a 7-22 season were unrealistic. This season is, and has always been, about growing the players for the future.
Junior guard Cayla McMorris has been entrusted with the offense, even if she had only started 13 games her previous two seasons. As a result of starting every game, the guard is averaging a career-high in not only points per game (12.9) but rebounds (4.4). This included a scorching 31 points in just the second game of the season.
Sophomore forward Marsha Howard has stayed ready all season, whether that be coming off the bench as the first sub, or being ready to step up and start—which she has 14 out of 25 games. In double her minutes than last season, she has more than doubled her scoring average (2.1 versus 7.4) and rebounds (2.5 versus 5.1) this season.
Tsipis’ band of freshmen have not been left in the dust, but rather put on a pedestal to perform. Guard Kendra Van Leeuwen has started every game for her team, making pinpoint passes all season. Forward Courtney Fredrickson has started almost every game, and has shown ability both at the three-point line and on her pull-up in the midrange. And guard Suzanne Gilreath has served as the sharpshooting threat off the bench, hitting a three-pointer in her last 18 games.
Even with the losses that have come, there have been some wins—including a road win against UW-Green Bay, who has bounced in and out of the Top-25 all season. With a win or loss, coach Tsipis has still not changed his stance, even after the Badgers snapped their 10-game skid with a win against Nebraska last Thursday.
“This isn’t just trying to get a win; this is our group trying to get better,” said Tsipis following the game. “We’re looking forward to moving forward with this.”
Every climb up a ladder requires one to step past the first rung, and with this season, the Badgers are eager and primed to climb up and become a threat in the Big Ten for seasons to come. And Coach Tsipis hopes to be the man ready to push them.
The Badgers are set to take on Maryland Wednesday night before coming home to host Rutgers for their Think Pink game.