SUNY Poly women’s squad overcame growing pains during historic season
MARCY — Growing pains and an age gap between teammates can either make or break a team’s chemistry.
Luckily for the SUNY Polytechnic women’s basketball team, a little adversity bonded the team en route to the school’s first women’s NCAA Division III playoff win.
When the Wildcats edged Eastern Connecticut State, 80-72, on March 3, the victory represented the first NCAA Tournament win for any team in the women’s program in the school’s history.
Head coach Jessica Skelton of Rome noted that the accomplishment is a gratifying honor, especially with the season that the women’s team endured.
“We overcame a lot of obstacles as a team,” she said.
The Wildcats finished 26-3 overall and posted a 17-1 North Eastern Athletic Conference record, with their season ending with a second-round 76-65 loss to Scranton on March 4. SUNY Poly also won the NEAC championship for the second time in as many years.
With a record like that, people wouldn’t expect a lot of adversity to come from the team.
However, Skelton differed.
“We had a lot of growing up to do,” admitted Skelton, noting that her senior players pushed the younger girls to quickly adapt to their playing level.
“They were a lot more pushier than normal. We went through a lot of tough love. The seniors wanted to make something out of their last go-around.”
Skelton noted that she had never coached a team like this, bringing in eight freshmen, including Camden standout guard Kiersten Leos and Holland Patent graduate guard Shannon Harrision.
With an age gap as drastic as the Wildcats faced, it took some time to learn the new faces, but it bonded them, as they became stronger and more competitive.
“The upperclassmen had to get used to their new teammates and the freshmen had to learn to play with new teammates and adjust to playing at the college level,” admitted Leos about her first collegiate season.
“It was easy to adjust because the whole team’s goal was to win.”
Harrison noted that as a freshman, she spent a majority of her freshman season learning. “It was about giving respect that they deserved and spending time together to help bridge the gap between us,” she said.
It was a mutual respect between the freshmen and upperclassmen, with all needing one another to do their jobs, noted Leos.
“We all figured out our roles on the court and what we each needed to do in order to win games. Knowing that we all needed each other on the court made us the team that we were and helped us in some big games.”
Leos started in the last two games of the season against Eastern Connecticut and Scranton.
She wrapped up her first 29-game collegiate season with 163 points, 72 rebounds, 50 assists and 39 steals. She averaged 5.6 points per game and had a 62.5-percent at the charity line, hitting 15 of 24 free throws.
“I think I became stronger on the court and more confident at the end of the season,” said Leos.
“I was nervous about starting those last two games, but I knew I had to step up.”
Skelton and Leos go back, as both are Camden alumni.
Skelton scouted Leos prior to her joining the Wildcats and knew what she was capable of, watching Leos since she was a full-time member of the Camden girls varsity basketball program as an eighth-grader.
Leos was called up while she was a seventh-grader, and became a mainstay for the remainder of her career.
Leos tallied 1,807 points, 198 three-pointers, 344 steals, all of which are school records, as well as 493 rebounds, another career-best, in her six-and-a-half years with the Blue Devils. She’s also a member of the Section III 1,000 point club.
“She’s a great kid, but I want to make her meaner,” kidded Skelton, who now lives in Rome.
“I want her to get tougher, give her a killer instinct attitude. She’s got it in her somewhere, I just want to bring it out.”
Harrison appeared in 21 contests with the Wildcats and scored 57 points, grabbed 28 rebounds and had eight steals. She also had a 70-percentage at the free throw line, hitting 21 of 30.
She averaged 8.3 minutes per game and noted that getting that NCAA playoff win and getting the freshman jitters out of her system will help her develop next season.
“She was limited with her time out there, but she’s one of those kids who gives 100-percent,” said Skelton. “She definitely stepped into her role this season.”
As for the rest of the Wildcats, Skelton noted that she returns a team with an incredibly tight bond.
“This past season was all business, but next season it’ll be relaxing. These girls are always joking and laughing, but all they know is winning. They don’t know what it’s like to lose. We’re coming back as competitors.”
Harrison also added that she and the rest of her team want to prove this year wasn’t a fluke.
“I expect nothing less out of us, but to win a three-peat as NEAC champions and prove that we belong in the NCAA tournament again.”