Sports, Women's Basketball

Johnson’s Eagles Are Loaded With Talent And In It Together

Erik Johnson stands motionless at the back of the weight room, watching over his team’s preseason lift session and taking in the energy around him. The head coach does not need to say or do anything, as the 15 girls pump themselves up and jam out from song to song as they work out, completely unaware of their coach’s presence.

This scene presents a stark contrast to the recent teams that Johnson has coached.

“The difference was, in the last couple of years, the coaching staff had to be the energy,” Johnson said. “I was the one pumping them up and pushing them. We had to be the impetus.”

This year, the Boston College women’s basketball team, led by junior captain Nicole Boudreau and sophomore Kelly Hughes, looks to rebuild and establish a new culture by focusing on the little things and stressing accountability.

“We didn’t hold ourselves accountable as much as we should have last year, and that’s really what Coach Johnson has been harping on,” Hughes said. “We need to build in ourselves to not let anything go by the wayside.”

Boudreau, the sole captain, agrees that accountability is the foundation of this year’s team.

“First of all, I need to hold myself accountable. And once I hold myself to a high standard, I try to get everyone on board with me and encourage them and give them as much feedback as possible,” she said.

Even on fan day, Johnson stops the crowd-pleasing scrimmage to once more emphasize the importance of all the little things. He does not seem to care at all about their struggles with the press or try to analyze their motion offense. Instead, Johnson brings his team into the huddle and calls them out for laziness in transition and lack of communication on both ends.

Two sprints, down the court and back, follow.

There are times when Johnson has to refocus his team, but overall, his job has been made much easier this year.

The players have taken it upon themselves to know when practice is and to ice and stretch properly after games, without having to be told by the coaching staff.

This may seem pretty standard, but part of the struggles in past seasons can be attributed to a lack of accountability.

When introducing his team to the fans, Johnson makes it clear that there is a big difference between a team that goes through the motions because the players have to, and a team that does things for itself. Before handing over the floor to his players, he emphasizes that this team works hard and finishes every sprint not because he forces the players to, but because they want to.

A key factor in the implementation of this new team culture has been an offseason leadership and team-building program, which the Eagles have participated in during the last two summers. Led by former special-ops soldiers from the armed forces, “The Program” develops leaders and builds team unity through shared adversity in the form of mentally and physically arduous tasks.

Responsibility and mentorship often get overlooked in the high-octane world of Division I sports, where individual talent reigns supreme, but BC has gone back to these fundamentals provided by The Program’s training regimen.

Johnson stops another drill to deliver a quick message.

“Don’t overthink it,” he said. “This is what we do in basketball. We sprint our ass back.”

Johnson stressed that once the little things are ingrained in the players’ minds and they can bring the hustle day in and day out, then the Eagles can start focusing on strategy and getting better.

As far as that goes, the offensive firepower of Boudreau and Hughes will be the focus and spark of BC’s offense.

Bursting onto the scene last year as a freshman, Hughes led the Eagles in scoring and finished 17th in the nation in three-point field goal percentage. Armed with a lethal jump-shot and impressive range, Hughes has the ability to score from anywhere on the floor.

Boudreau, a two-year starter, has an eye for the killer pass, leading the team in assists last year. That’s not to say that she can’t score, though, as she was right behind Hughes in points per game. Her all-around game has been a staple in BC’s offense during her freshman and sophomore campaigns, and she will again be the focal point of the backcourt.

“Boudreau to Hughes,” as the captain finds a cutting Hughes for a smooth reverse lay-up, will be a familiar sight for fans this year.

Not only will BC seek to benefit from its new culture, but for the first time since the beginning of last season, it will have a full team. By the end of 2013-14, the Eagles only had nine healthy players, with seven or so playing regularly.

This year, six new faces—five freshmen and a transfer—join the nine returning players to round out a deep squad. Kailey Edwards, a transfer who was recruited by Johnson and his staff at Denver University, will sit out this season, however.

“We have been using our depth for increased competitiveness and intensity,” Johnson said. “We get after it because there is playing time on the line.”

Players and coaches alike agree that the number one goal is to make it to the NCAA Tournament, and that starts with making some noise in the ACC—undoubtedly the toughest conference in women’s basketball.

After going 3-13 in conference play and losing to Virginia in the first round of the ACC tournament, the added depth will allow BC to compete with the likes of North Carolina, Duke, and Notre Dame in a stacked conference.

“We can play at a higher octane because we are not pacing ourselves,” Johnson said. “I can shuttle people in and out of the game much more quickly, and they can play harder for shorter stretches.”

Not only does the freshman class provide much-needed depth, but it brings new positions to the team as well.

Lacking any true point guards or post players last year, BC played mostly at the perimeter, desperately relying on the outside shooting of Boudreau and Hughes. As a result, the Eagles were unable to generate much offense against better teams.

Martina Mosetti, Ashley Kelsick, and Rachel Gartner are all looking to earn minutes at the point, while Katie Quandt, the tallest on the team at 6-foot-3, provides an inside presence. Ella Awobajo, a versatile player who can play either guard or forward, will also be vying for playing time.

“Not only are the new people going to have to step up, but I think our returning players are coming back stronger,” Boudreau said. “Everyone is going upwards in their skillsets and what they’re comfortable doing.”

Lauren Engeln, Kat Cooper, and Alexa Coulombe lead a much improved group of core players who will see expanded roles this year and battle with the freshman class for playing time.

Such high competition on a big team oftentimes leads to players butting heads, but Johnson and his staff have made it their priority to make sure that the team comes first.

Engeln, a returning starter and one of only two seniors on this young squad, is relishing the opportunity to become a leader and go out with a bang in her last season.

She will benefit the most from this year’s depth after being forced into an unfamiliar point guard role at the end of last season.

“I’m stoked to definitely take on that leadership role,” Engeln said. “Probably the biggest thing right now is knowing that you can take the freshmen aside and tell them that you’ve been through what they’re going through.”

Johnson takes his time to explain a continuous 3-on-2 drill with two teams, emphasizing the fact that one point will be deducted for not sprinting back. A few drills later, a steaming Johnson again stops free throw practice to chew out his team for selfishness, and his message is simple.

His squad has a choice: the players can complain, fall apart, and scrape through practice, or they can fix something and work together to get better.

So far this year, his team has chosen the latter.

“Our culture has gotten a whole lot better,” Boudreau said. “We trust each other, and that’s what makes us good.”

Replacing the production of last year’s captains Katie Zenevitch and Rachel Doherty will be a tough task for the Eagles, but this deep and well-rounded team looks determined and talented.

“The next step is just preparing for Stanford and also our very competitive ACC schedule, practicing like we don’t belong at the bottom of the ACC poll, and proving people wrong and finishing nowhere near the bottom,” Hughes said.

More importantly, the Eagles have been working hard to create something different, something that goes beyond the plays drawn up on whiteboards and the preseason polls.

With a newfound belief in each other and an attitude of togetherness, the Eagles have what it takes to exceed expectations this year, but with such a young squad, it will be an uphill battle.

One word, echoing around Power Gym after every huddle sums up this team’s willingness to take on the challenge: “Together.”

Featured Image by Emily Fahey / Heights Editor

November 6, 2014