AKRON For more than a decade, fans of Akron basketball have enjoyed a remarkably consistent ride.
The school’s men’s and women’s teams have been among the Mid-American Conference’s best during that span, hanging championship banners and amassing postseason appearances at an impressive rate. That makes the current season for both squads a jarring experience for those inside and outside the programs.
The men’s team entered this season with 12 straight 20-win seasons, winning the MAC Tournament three times during that span, reaching the NCAA Tournament three times, the NIT five times and playing in a postseason tournament of some kind in 11 of the 12 years.
The women’s program, now in its 12th season under head coach Jodi Kest, has built its own winning tradition during that same time. From 2012-14, the women’s team won 22 or more games every season, including the Zips’ first-ever MAC title and NCAA Tournament berth in 2014.
As the 2017-18 campaign unfolds, both Akron teams have sub-.500 records and there’s a real chance neither will receive a first-round bye in the MAC tournament or even host an opening-round game.
First-year men’s head coach John Groce knew he was stepping into a challenging situation when he took the Akron job, but the challenges have mounted since then. An 11-13 record and 4-8 conference mark through 24 games underscore the severity of those challenges.
"Obviously, we prepared for that going into the first year. When I took the job, in the first month, four to eight weeks there, we have several guys that had already left, several guys that ended up leaving and we had to recruit team very quickly at that point with five or six scholarship players total left on the roster," Groce said. "We knew what we were getting into. What you don’t expect, obviously, is to have both your starting center and at that time, the backup center, both get injured in the span of four days. One was open heart surgery and and the other was tendons in the wrist, so that also affected our depth."
The injuries to which Groce alluded were a heart condition that has sophomore center Emmanuel Olojakpoke out the rest of the season and a wrist injury that has sidelined freshman center Jayden Sales for several weeks, depriving the already-thin Zips of vital front court depth. Injuries have also been a theme for the women’s team, which lost its top shooter, redshirt junior guard Megan Sefcik, not long after she set a single-game school record for 3-pointers in a game with 10.
"We’ve had a lot of injures, not just Megan, but other players too," Kest said. "Every program goes through injuries, but we’ve had more injuries this season than my whole career put together. We do have a very young team, but we’re not going to make excuses. We’ve had some close games, some we’ve won, some we’ve lost, but we feel like as long as we continue to get better as a team, the future is bright."
Kest admitted that the team’s 8-16 start is tough one everyone, but especially the team’s seniors, who had winning seasons their first two years with the Zips, but have gone through a lot of adversity the past two seasons.
The paths the two Akron teams have taken to this point in the season are different, but both find themselves playing a lot of underclassmen who have shown promise for the future. Sayles, freshman guard Virshon Cotton and freshman forward Mark Kostelac have all played significant minutes and sophomore guard Daniel Utomi, along with Olojakpoke - prior to his injury - exhibited significant growth from their freshman seasons.
Only four players remain on the roster from last season, with transfers and graduations overhauling the roster before the year even began. Conversely, the women’s team brought back much of its roster, with nine players returning from a squad that went 9-21, the program’s first losing campaign since the 2011-12 season.
Kest is hopeful that a road win on Feb. 11 at Eastern Michigan is a harbinger of better things the rest of the season for her team, as is Groce about a 69-63 home win over Central Michigan one day earlier.
"The most important thing for me right now is making sure we build the foundation on concrete and that means effort. You saw us play with great effort (against Central Michigan) and I want guys with great effort and great attitude, who are coachable, and I want a toughness about us, that we’re able to have a physical and a mental toughness about us," Groce said. "We have not arrived yet in any of those areas, but today we made some progress and we’re going to continue to beat that drum."
Both coaches understand that the adversity of this season can be a catalyst for future success, but only if it’s handled the right way.
"With all of the injuries, next person up, next woman up and it gives our younger kids more opportunities to learn," Kest said. "A couple years from now, we will be glad we went through this. We’re always going to continue to stand by the high standards we’ve set for our program and we have built a culture of winning here, but it has been difficult for our kids this year because they’re not used to losing. There’s always going adversity in life and we have been knocked down a lot this year, but we have to keep fighting and not let next loss discourage us."
Many of the players who have stepped up to fill voids created by injury for the women’s team are freshmen and sophomores who will be able to form a core for what they and the coaching staff will be better days ahead.
Sophomore guard Alyssa Clay and Shaunay Edmonds, sophomore forward Haliegh Reinoehl, freshman forward Sarah Leyendecker, freshman forward Kynnedy Azubike and freshman guard Destiny Perkins have all played major minutes and shown good scoring ability.
One aspect of this season that both Kest and Groce don’t want to focus on is any outside opinions. Although Akron has a weekly radio show on which coaches regularly appear and both coaches interact with fans, media members and boosters who have their opinions on the program, worrying about the opinions of those who aren’t a part of the day-to-day operations of their team is something neither wants to do.
"I don’t talk to people outside the program. I don’t even talk to my wife about what she thinks," Groce said. "I know exactly where we’re going and how we’re going to get there. I’ve got a great feel because of the experiences I’ve been through and knowing what it takes to do that. We’re not where we need to be yet … obviously, we’re battling out there with a roster that’s a little bit smaller, with guys hurt, and for me I’m more concerned with where we’re going and how we’re moving the needle forward on a daily basis."
This may not be the sort of season to which Akron fans have become accustomed, but for those at the heart of it, its focus is using this year to lay a foundation for a winning future and to make the battles of this season the starting point for a turnaround.
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