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Women’s Basketball Bounces Back After Tough Two Years

Aretha+Sullivan+%28%2717%29+routinely+burns+defenders+and+gets+to+the+foul+line.+She+is+third+in+the+conference+in+free+throw+attempts+per+game.+%28Photo+courtesy+of+Clark+Athletics%29
Aretha Sullivan ('17) routinely burns defenders and gets to the foul line. She is third in the conference in free throw attempts per game. (Photo courtesy of Clark Athletics)

Aretha Sullivan ('17) routinely burns defenders and gets to the foul line. She is third in the conference in free throw attempts per game. (Photo courtesy of Clark Athletics)

Frank Poulin

Frank Poulin

Aretha Sullivan ('17) routinely burns defenders and gets to the foul line. She is third in the conference in free throw attempts per game. (Photo courtesy of Clark Athletics)

Scott Levine, Sports Editor

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Clark Women’s Basketball Head Coach Pat Glispin did not land any recruits this offseason. She required surgery in March for lingering back issues; prime recruiting time for Division III college basketball.

“I was not 100 percent all. I did come in to meet some people, and I think my energy was low. And that doesn’t bode well for recruiting,” said Glispin.

Glispin’s health has improved since then, and so has her team. Not having new players has become a strength for Clark. The team played flashes of high level basketball at the end of last season, and has been able to pick up where they left off. After going 3-13 in the NEWMAC last year, the team is sixth in the conference at 5-7, and would make the playoffs if the season ended today.

“We’ve had a rough couple years, and now we’ve kind of grown together as a team,” said co-captain point guard Sam O’Gara (’18).

Team chemistry has led to defensive improvement. Clark has allowed 58 points per game after allowing 65 last year, validating Glispin’s strong emphasis on defense.

“[Coach] only focuses on defense,” said co-captain forward Haley Wilder (‘18), prone to hyperbole. However, players have been quick to internalize Glispin’s messages, for they have seen their defensive effort pay off in the form of wins.

“Sometimes we forget that it matters, but when we do it, we’re like ‘Oh, yeah, that’s what we’re supposed to do, and it does work,’” said Wilder.  

Wilder has revamped her defensive effort this year, and invented herself as an indispensable starter who does the little things that help the team win.

“When she arrived, she so badly wanted to be a three-point shooter, she wanted to be an off guard,” said O’Gara, who played her post-grad year with Wilder at Vermont Academy. “But, I think it has helped her improvement as a player to focus more on her defense than her offense.” Wilder has taken two fewer shots per game this season, resulting in her playing more efficiently on offense and focusing more energy towards defense.

“Her shift from coming in as a very offensively oriented player, to becoming a very sound defender has really made a difference,” said Glispin.

Wilder comprises an imposing frontcourt defense with center Ogechi Ezemma (’19). Ezemma ranks fourth in the NEWMAC in rebounds per game with 9.7, and leads the conference in blocks per game with 1.8.

“Playing with ‘Gechi is extremely fun. When I play with her, I know she’s got my back, and that she will be in the system and know what we need to do,” said Wilder.

“We’re very lucky to have [Ogechi],” said Glispin.

Clark’s defensive stops have led to high percentage looks and free throw attempts for their two star guards, co-captain Aretha Sullivan (’17) and O’Gara (’18). Both love pushing the ball in transition after a missed shot, and both draw a lot of fouls. O’Gara leads the NEWMAC in free throw attempts per game with 6.2, and Sullivan ranks third with 5.3.

“Getting to the free throw line early helps me get my game going,” said Sullivan. “The shots might not always fall, but if you attack the basket, you have a good chance of getting the bucket or getting fouled.”

O’Gara and Sullivan both live in Worcester, and work together during the summer with Diago McClain, who is the founder and CEO of Worcester PIF (Pay It Forward), which teaches Worcester youth basketball over the summer. He has been working with the two since 2009.

“This summer, we really focused on not having to go through a losing season,” said O’Gara. “We worked on our fundamentals, our passing, our dribbling, and Diago was obviously able to help us do that.”

McClain attends every Clark home game, and has enjoyed the team’s rise in the NEWMAC standings.

“From 2009 to now is a huge difference,” said McClain. “They really worked at it. They put the time in, and it’s starting to show.”

An offense with two ball-dominant, basket-attacking guards like O’Gara and Sullivan has the potential to be discordant, but the two have built a strong chemistry. Along with training in the summer together, they both played for the Main South girls’ basketball team in high school.

“I think we both know the difference between our roles,” said O’Gara. “She’s kind of the off-guard who will attack off the dribble, and I’m the person who is creating and making sure everyone else has that opportunity.”

As the two actualize their roles on the team, their chemistry on the court continues to strengthen.

“In my 33 years at Clark, I have never seen a backcourt so entwined with each other,” said Glispin.

The team’s improvement has come not just from the starting unit, but also from their depth. All 15 players on the roster play more than five minutes per game, but only O’Gara, Sullivan, Wilder, and Ezemma play more than 15 minutes per game. Glispin described balancing her deep rotation of players as “one of the great challenges of the season, for the coaches and the players.”

Glispin said it has been made possible by players handling spotty playing time well, citing the senior leadership of Gwyneth Ivory (’17) and co-captain Sami Dokus (’16). Both play slightly fewer than ten minutes a game, but have been accepting of their roles.

“They have done what they’ve been asked to do, as well as they can do it, whatever it is. They’ve had to sacrifice for the team, and I think they’ve been great at that.

“Those roles are not easy, and them handling so well, I think that forces younger players to handle roles as well,” said Glispin.

The team has grown used to relying on its bench for bursts of scoring or defensive energy. Maya Kerstetter (’19) chipped in seven key points during her five-minute shift in the fourth quarter to tilt the Smith game in the Cougars’ favor.

Sullivan attributed the bench contributions to the overall experience of the team, as many of the bench contributors are now sophomores.

“They’re past the nerve stage, and are realizing the role that they bring to the team, and aren’t afraid to shoot,” she said.

The depth will likely be an advantage against conference opponents as Clark looks to clinch their first playoff berth in four years.

“A few teams have as much depth as us in the conference, but not many do,” said Glispin.

The team has four conference games left. They will play a tough road schedule, traveling Babson on Saturday, Feb. 4, and MIT on Wednesday, Feb. 8. They will return to the Kneller on Saturday, Feb. 11 to play Emerson for Alumni Day.

“It’s important to be playing your best basketball late in the season,” said Glispin, who said she hopes the team continues to improve its consistency and demonstrate mental toughness to weather the storm against tough NEWMAC opponents.

No player on the current roster has been in the tournament. O’Gara thinks the team can do more than simply qualify.

“I think, honestly, our team has the most potential in this league,” said O’Gara. “We can compete with anyone.”

Wilder shares the optimism of her teammate.

“We have a huge shot these playoffs. In our conference, anyone can win it,” she said.

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Women’s Basketball Bounces Back After Tough Two Years