As the women’s basketball team fell into the swing of an early season practice, head coach Polly Thomason hovered around the court, never staying in one place for too long.
Outfitted in a grey athletic sweater, grey and orange Nike sneakers and orange basketball shorts, the 11-year UTD coach looked more like a player as she energetically bounced up and down the court, giving out an endless mix of compliments, criticisms and instructions.
With less than a month to go before the basketball season tips off, Thomason is still focused on getting her young squad used to the basics. Last year, after five straight 20-plus win seasons, the Comets finished with a 14-12 record and got knocked out in the quarterfinals of the ASC tournament — their earliest exit since 2007.
The Comets went through growing pains last year after losing a group of seniors that led the team to their best record ever and an appearance in the Sweet Sixteen in 2015. With no experienced seniors on the team, the squad struggled to find its identity.
“We (went) from a group that had five seniors, three of which were our leaders … to a group that was still trying to figure out who their leaders were and what their leaders were about,” Thomason said. “And I think for any team, if you don’t have leadership from an upperclassman … I think you’re going to run into trouble, especially when you’re not as talented as your opponent. You need someone to step up and motivate you and inspire you and push you to do things that you’re not comfortable doing and we just didn’t have anyone last year to do that.”
But now, with a year under their belt as a team, Thomason said she is impressed by how the the players have transitioned.
Last season, one of the key areas the team needed to develop was guard play. With no experienced guards to lead the team, the Comets relied on first-year players like Zavier Landry and Alyssa Crockett to run the backcourt.
Thomason said the lack of experience at the one and two positions led her to realize just how important it is to have good guards.
For Crockett and Landry, their newfound knowledge comes with a caveat: more responsibility.
“I think now (we know) a little bit more of what to expect,” Crockett said. “We know what to take serious and we know that we have to come in everyday and work hard, that’s not just on the court but in the classroom as well.”
With no real practice or communication with the coaches since early March, the players have been running games on their own, but they haven’t been able to match the intensity and rigor of practicing anywhere from two and a half to three hours a day.
Now, as the team is prepping for the season, catching back up to speed and focusing on the little details under the eyes of watchful coaches is another hurdle for the young squad.
“It’s a big challenge,” Landry said. “From just doing open gym to now getting in practice and putting plays and you’re putting defensive plays in and it’s just a big challenge that we know we have to overcome.”
Despite the challenges the team has to face both internally and externally from teams like UT Tyler, which went to the Elite Eight last year and is returning with all but one player, this year already has a much different feel for the Comets than the year before.
“There’s much more chemistry than what it was last year,” Landry said. “You (had) three transfers coming in, then you have the people who are already here and we were on the same page but you could tell there wasn’t as much chemistry as there is now. … It’s much more chemistry, it’s much more love.”
For senior forward Nicolette Erkman, the difference between this year and last is simple.
“We’re more of a family now,” she said. “It took last year to learn each other and now we’re putting it all together and making sure we have it on the court and outside the court.”
The coaches’ preseason poll places the Comets as finishing third in the ASC, but the players have another goal in mind: winning the whole conference.
With 10 new faces, plus a new assistant coach, the team is still getting used to changes. But for Thomason, her expectations are simple.
“I really just want to see us, to be honest, compete better than we did last year,” she said. “I felt like we were in some games that we lost just because, whether it was the leadership or the execution or maybe even our fitness level, wasn’t where we needed it to be. So I’d like to fix all of those things and just get our team more cohesive. So I think that is our starting point. I think we’ve got some great talent, but if they can’t play together and they can’t play UT Dallas basketball, then we’ll probably have a very similar season to be honest. So my expectations for the year is they’ve learned the lessons from the past.”