Monday, December 29, 2008

Rebuilding Women's Hoops

I finally got to spend some time with new ISU women's basketball coach Seton Sobolewski during our coach's show last Monday night. He strikes me as a bright, energetic young man -- and he's going to have to be, because he's got a major rebuilding job ahead of him.

Sobolewski (above) inherited a highly successful program when Jon Newlee departed for the University of Idaho, but just about everything that can happen to upset a smooth transition has happened to Seton and his new staff. It started with the season-ending illness of PG Andrea Videbeck and the decisions of PF Ally Sissel and G Bianca Cheever to follow Newlee to northern Idaho. Then junior college transfer PG Andrea Blodgett was declared ineligible and incoming freshman F Kayla Gromme was suspended. Sobolewski told me Monday night that Gromme has left the program and Blodgett will not be eligible the remainer of the season.

It's never a surprise when there is a major roster shakeup under a new coach, but even under those circumstances the extent of this fallout is fairly extreme. As a result, Sobolewski has had to ask a roster of largely role players to assume leading lady status. Michelle Grohs, Oana Iacovita, Jenna Brown and Devin Diehl have all played 29 minutes or more per game. More importantly, they are the Bengals' primary offensive weapons after being third or fourth options in the Natalie Doma-Andrea Lightfoot era -- all the while playing significantly more minutes.

The results so far have been entirely predictable. The Bengals are 3-9 on the season, heading into Tuesday night's final non-conference game against Colorado. They've competed hard for the most part, but they just simply don't have the athletes or the depth to win on a consistent basis. It will take a coach-of-the-year performance from Sobolewski to sneak this team into the Big Sky Conference post-season tournament.

Things don't any easier next season, either. The Bengals lose Grohs, their leading scorer and second-leading rebounder, and Brown, their assist leader and No. 3 scorer. Sobolewski has signed four freshmen -- 6-1 F Ashleigh Vella, 5-11 G Morgan Wohltman, 6-3 F Shannon Byrne, and 5-5 PG Kaela Oakes -- for next season, and he hopes to add a couple of more players in the spring signing period. He'll also return top rebounder Iacovita, sophomore G Chelsea Pickering and talented freshmen G Sheila Adams next season.

But the reality of the situation is that it's probably going to take a couple of years for Sobolewski, through no fault of his own, to get the Bengal women's program back up to the level it was when Newlee was in charge. And unfortunately, attendance is already taking a hit. The Bengals are averaging only 688 fans a game this year, down significantly from the 1225 ISU drew last year. Hopefully the Bengal women will remain competitive throughout Big Sky play and avoid further erosion in the fan base.

--Brad B.
And thanks for being a Bengal fan -- it ain't always easy, but it's always fun.

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