After a season of falling just one place in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) West standings short of a PSAC playoff berth, The Rock Women’s Basketball eyed improvement.
There were a number of landmark goals going into the 2022-23 season. Some of these were finishing above .500 in both the overall standings and conference standings. Another was a playoff berth. As for some team-oriented goals as opposed to goals that everyone would strive toward, one notable one was defeating rival Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP).
There were plenty of difficulties. Beloved head coach Bobby McGraw, who had been the coach for the SRU women’s basketball team for several years, passed away over the offseason. It was a big emotional struggle for the team and staff to overcome.
Not only did the squad have to come together for each other, but they also had to learn how to play under a new coaching staff.
Some of the preliminary adversities were, “taking new coaches and trying to learn that system and turning it around overall,” head coach Chenara Wilson said.
Wilson took the reins quickly and efficiently. She learned much from the universally respected McGraw.
“We overcame something that many people probably didn’t think we could,” Wilson said.
She instilled many values of camaraderie and empathy in her team. After all, getting through difficult times is much easier when there are outlets for conversation and emotional discussion.
“From the beginning, I told everyone we need to be there for each other,” Wilson said. “We were the only ones who truly knew how each other felt.”
The values of teamwork and cooperation that Wilson’s squad had gained did not only resonate with the players, but they extended to her as well.
“I told them that they were the reason that I was able to be successful because they listened and they took what I was telling them to heed and turned it into good,” Wilson said.
And it showed on the court, noticeably early on.
After starting off a robust 5-1 in early season play before conference games started, The Rock opened with a 73-57 victory over Shepherd University on December 2.
Redshirt sophomore guard Isabellah Middleton previewed her strong season with 13 points, joining fellow redshirt sophomore guards Bella Long and Kristina Donza in double-digit scoring.
This game was followed up by a 4-7 stretch leading into potentially the biggest matchup of the year, a January 25 home game against IUP.
Despite not having their best stretch of the season beforehand, The Rock was ready and showed it to their biggest rivals.
SRU came out on top, 52-48: Their first victory over IUP in 16 years.
One landmark goal down.
On top of that, another goal was brought to light: Their first season sweep of IUP since 2002.
There were still six games to be played until then. The White and Green started out hot with a 77-68 victory over Clarion University only to lose the next three.
This time there would be more of a rebound. SRU took down Mercyhurst University and Edinboro University in back-to-back games prior to their second round with IUP.
As the game delved further into the fourth quarter, Slippery Rock put the game out of reach. Not only did they beat IUP for the season sweep, but they won by 13 in a 70-57 bout.
Two landmark goals down.
Redshirt senior guard Deleah Gibson and Isabellah Middleton were the stars this time around, both scoring at least 20 points.
The following two games would be crucial and a deciding factor as to whether SRU would advance to the PSAC tournament.
However, after such a strong performance, The Rock faltered, dropping each of the last two games and being eliminated from playoff contention, but there was still much to be proud of.
The squad finished 15-13 overall, a record above .500 at .536.
Three landmark goals down.
“We did some big things, we swept IUP twice and beat Edinboro,” Wilson said. “Having our winningest season since 2001-2002 to me is a big accomplishment itself.”
There were plenty of goals achieved but also plenty left on the table. Room for improvement is not a bad thing for a young and hungry team like this.
A big reason to have confidence in the team’s future? “Dealing with a whole lot of adversity and still being able to come out on top is a determining factor to me,” Wilson said.
Veteran players who have played their last minutes for SRU will be missed both as teammates and as friends. Wilson shared some of what seniors Deleah Gibson and Kennedy Middleton meant to the team and how they were able to help herself.
“[Deleah] was a leader on and off the court. They both were. They’re people that I can go to and say I need the team to be together,” Wilson said.
Heading into the offseason, Wilson will place a focus on the game outside of the game. She wants her players to be prepared for life.
“To be a role model and teach them what the real world is like because it’s coming,” Wilson said. “After your four years of college, the real world is here. So being able to take some of the stuff basketball-related and even real life-related, things that they brought to me and that I had to explain to them, ok you’re not a kid anymore, in the real world this is how you have to handle things.”
She drew upon her staff to help add this guidance throughout the season as well. As an all-Black female coaching staff, they have much to share with their players about their perspective and how they got to the successful positions they are in.
Wilson commented on how she had to work to get into the position she is in now, but anxiety and worries are no reason from holding oneself back from potentially getting a job or position or school that could be a great fit for them.
“At the end of the day, I just suggest for people to go for what they want no matter what the situation is,” Wilson said. “It never hurts to try.”
It was those types of decisions and moves of confidence that brought Wilson her current staff.
Jamiyah Johnson was an easy decision to bring on as a former player of Wilson’s.
“Jamiyah–obviously I had her coming from a player role so that was really nice being able to have her ascended to that position of being the grad assistant,” Wilson said. “Whatever I needed assistance with, she was there to help.”
Assistant coach Dana Jeter was also a very welcoming addition, with Wilson describing her as the perfect balance to Wilson’s own coaching style.
“Having coach Jeter step into the position was also great because its like yin-yang,” Wilson said. “We have each other to balance out each other’s coaching style… It was definitely a pleasure to have Jeter step into that position as well.”
Between a proven strong coaching staff that is close with their players, a young team that has learned so much from their former veteran teammates, and several clear goals right ahead, there are plenty of reasons to be excited about next season.