ND women looking for go-to player

Anthony Anderson
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — It’s not an entirely new team that Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw has been working with during this women’s college basketball offseason.

It just feels that way.

“I thought the freshmen looked good, (but) I think it was because it was like we had all freshmen,” McGraw said Monday of summer workouts that took place over several weeks.

“Nobody was coming back as a returning starter,” McGraw said of a fact certainly well-known among Irish faithful by now, “so everybody was looking at, ‘Hey, I have a chance to play,’ so I think we were all kind of coming from the same level, and I think that helped the freshmen feel a little more secure.”

Per NCAA.org, coaches were allowed four hours per week to work with players on skills over an eight-week period in team settings this summer. Up to an additional four hours per week were allotted for conditioning and weight training.

“We didn’t get to use it all because of July recruiting,” McGraw said of the skill sessions. “We got together maybe five or six times as a group.”

That was still enough for the coach to draw some conclusions heading into a period of individual workouts that began Tuesday.

Foremost, the conclusion that this feels like a brand new team isn’t that far-fetched.

Consider, of the scant nine scholarship players on the roster, two are freshmen (Samantha Brunelle and Anaya Peoples), two are graduate transfers (Marta Sniezek and Destinee Walker) and two played a combined seven games last season due to injuries (Katlyn Gilbert and Katie Cole, a former walk-on).

Among the other three players, all just sophomores in eligibility now, Abby Prohaska was the leader in minutes at 14.9 per outing. Mikayla Vaughn averaged 9.6 and Danielle Cosgrove just 4.9.

Gone from the Irish are five multi-year stars — Arike Ogunbowale, Jessica Shepard, Brianna Turner, Marina Mabrey and early-declaring overall No. 1 pick Jackie Young — who were each among the top 19 selections in last April’s WNBA draft after keying ND to a national runner-up finish on the heels of a national title.

Gone, too, are Danielle Patterson (Indiana) and Jordan Nixon (Texas A&M), who each transferred.

That’s a net of seven scholarship players out the door and just four in.

“It’s going to be interesting,” McGraw said, citing who remains. “We had a great summer with them. They’re so eager to learn, so willing to listen, and I think that’s going to be good, but we still need to find out, who’s going to be the go-to player, who’s going to be the one to step up when we need a basket?”

Preferably, a few will.

“We only have (nine), and they’re all going to play,” McGraw said. “I think we’re going to be rolling them in and out a little more often.”

McGraw touched on several players individually, and among the observations, she called the 6-foot-3 Vaughn “our most improved player.”

Potentially, that’s ideal, given that Vaughn may also be ND’s only true post player, and certainly the only one with interior collegiate experience.

“She came back, really worked hard, and just the six weeks that she was gone made a huge difference,” McGraw said. “Just offensively and defensively, she really looked good.”

The 6-2 Brunelle — the nation’s No. 6 recruit, per ESPN — and 6-4 Cosgrove own the size to maneuver inside as well, but they have historically featured outside games.

“I think Danielle Cosgrove really worked on her body this year,” McGraw offered.

Not surprisingly, the coach called Brunelle “somebody that could play a huge role for us.”

Stepping out to a crowded perimeter, Sniezek, Walker, Gilbert, Prohaska, Cole and Peoples — checking in at No. 18, per ESPN — are all listed as guards.

Sniezek, a transfer form Stanford, turned heads during summer workouts.

“Marta I think is going to be a fabulous leader for us at point guard,” McGraw said. “She came in right away and the way she led was just a collaborative style. She didn’t come in and try to take over. She really kind of eased her way in, and the players immediately responded. They love listening to her.”

Sniezek’s fellow transfer, Walker from North Carolina, “hasn’t been on the floor much because of an injury, so she hasn’t been cleared yet,” according to McGraw, “but she’s somebody we’re going to be able to count on for scoring.”

The coach said she anticipates Walker and Gilbert will both be 100 percent in time for Notre Dame’s Nov. 5 season opener at Fordham.

Gilbert, besides undergoing shoulder surgery last winter, dealt with another shoulder-related issue, according to McGraw, yet missed just one practice over the summer.

Whatever way the coming season shakes out, ND’s largely new group of players can be reasonably assured of this much — they’ll start the season plenty lower than recent Irish teams have been ranked.

ESPN had Notre Dame at No. 17 in its way-too-early ratings and Sports Illustrated placed the Irish ninth, but that was before Patterson and Nixon both departed.

Schedule emerging

Primarily through reveals by other schools, Notre Dame’s non-conference schedule continues to take shape.

The Nov. 5 game at Fordham in New York City — on this season’s first allowed competition date — will be ND’s second-earliest start ever by four calendar days. The 1978-79 club tipped Nov. 1, but no other Irish team has played a regular-season opener prior to Nov. 9.

Known home dates include Tennessee on Nov. 11, Michigan State on Nov. 13, Minnesota on Dec. 4 and DePaul on Dec. 11.

The Irish play three games in the Cancun Challenge, set for Nov. 28-30, and have contests Nov. 23 at Michigan and Dec. 8 at Connecticut.

Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season play expands from 16 to 18 games this season, meaning ND could still have up to two other non-league games besides the 10 listed above.

Notre Dame women’s basketball head coach Muffet McGraw called 6-foo-3 Mikayla Vaughn “our most improved player.’’