Every team in sports deals with injuries. They are almost always unexpected, and present new challenges for coaches in order to find new ways to get wins.
Seldom does the injury bug hit a team like it did West Virginia women’s hoops last season, though.
“Last year at times we only had seven people on the bench, and we didn’t really play all seven,” said head coach Mike Carey. “So this year, we’ve got to build a bench, got to get people ready, we’ve got to at least have nine to ten that can play.”
As tough as a situation may seem, there is still a silver lining to this story. With a depleted lineup, Carey had to call on his freshmen to play big minutes — and they stepped up. Kari Nieblack, for example, earned last year’s Big 12 Sixth Man of the Year award — and she spent much of the time playing outside of her designated position (although, she is naturally a big).
Still, the Mountaineers came up short of their goals for the season — which was to make a run in the NCAA Tournament.
“The WNIT last year came as a shock to us, really,” Nieblack said. “But I think just with a lot of hard work and determination we’ll get to where we want to be this season.”
Nieblack already has some attention this preseason, earning preseason All-Big 12 honorable mention honors along with sophomore guard Madisen Smith. Senior Ty’Nice Martin, who is currently looking at an indefinite suspension to start the season, was named to the preseason All-Big 12 team.
The Mountaineers are off to a good start this season in the depth department, adding six new players to the roster — both upperclassmen and underclassmen. This helps Carey and his squad with their depth issues from last year, but the newcomers will need to get their experience the hard way.
“They have to get extra reps and learn, and the only way to do that is me throwing them into the fire, so to speak,” Carey said. “I mean, they’re going to play early and often. Even in games, early and often.”
Along with freshmen Kirsten Davis and Esmery Martinez, Carey added four upperclassmen to the roster, including guard Arleighshya McElroy. The junior, who goes by the name “Phat,” comes to Morgantown by way of Trinity Valley C.C. — the same junior college which produced former WVU forward Naomi Davenport.
“I came on my visit with me and [fellow Trinity Valley transfer] Jada [Wright], and [Naomi] was our host,” McElroy said. “She was like, ‘I’m here, it’s a great fit, and this is actually a great program for y’all,’ and she just persuaded me really well, and actually it really is a great program for me.”
Having arrived just before the team’s trip to Europe over the summer, McElroy and some of her fellow newcomers have had a quick adjustment period to their new home and team before the season begins. Ultimately, Carey says, just having the extra bodies on the roster is a plus from last season.
“I think we can do things we didn’t do last year because of the numbers,” he said, “and because of that, I think we’ll be more balanced, harder to guard, and not only that, but defensively we can change up a little bit.”