Heading into the season with its star player still rehabbing a season-ending injury from last year, another key player out, and a point guard rotation comprised of two first years, the Southwestern University Pirates women's basketball team was slow in finding its identity.
Noel Pratts missed the first month of the season and likewise returned to a different team dynamic. At the helm early, Courtney Maass flashed game-changing potential constrained by inexperience; both in dealing with the college level and a new system and role.
Heading into the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC) Championship Tournament, the Pirates have a better grasp of who they are. A lineup change brought clearer roles and better balance, pushing the Pirates to victories in five of their last six regular season games and a first-round match-up against Colorado College on Friday, Feb. 22 at 12:00 p.m.
Though it took some time for the Pirates to find their footing, credit is due for the players who helped set the foundation throughout as the SCAC considers its postseason awards. Here is the case for each. The actual awards will be handed out at a later date.
Cecily Woolfolk | C | Player of the Year, All-Conference
Basketball is a game of navigating and manipulating space within a free-flowing context. Though there are multiple ways to go about it, modern trends lean towards spreading defenses out with 3-point shooting and then operating over the top with athleticism and length.
Cecily Woolfolk possesses neither of these attributes in great abundance and the Pirates struggled at times to surround her with enough spacing.
It was important, then, to have a foundational player capable of carving out her own.
Woolfolk finished fourth in the SCAC in both scoring and rebounding during conference play, averaging 15.3 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. Doing so despite a myriad of ailments limiting her to 22.9 minutes per game (the fewest of any of the top five scorers) means she provided as much punch per minute as anyone.
Few in the conference possess as much functional power as Woolfolk, whose game is also full of subtle nuances.
Her sheer physicality obscures the grace in which she creates odd angles and shooting windows through which to loft an assortment of soft hooks, flip shots, and turnaround jumpers. Nimble footwork steps in for blinding athleticism, allowing her to quickly pivot or maneuver into the space she creates.
As sagging defenses conspired to limit entry passes, Woolfolk adapted by working diligently on the offensive glass, requiring attention even when not given the ball.
What separates her from other classic centers is her ability to read the defense and find her spots in it, catching and making plays on the move while in control.
Her ability to be a viable offense unto herself paved the way for the lineup changes to shift more offense to the bench, allowing for head coach Greta Grothe and assistant Georgina German to field defensive, space-starved units in the starting lineups and unleash potent bench pairings.
Basketball is a game of spacing and this year it has been a pleasure to watch Woolfolk carve out her own.
Courtney Maass | PG | Newcomer of the Year, All-Conference
Point guard is often described as the most important position in college basketball. It's a difficult role to master for anyone, let alone a first year.
Each game, Maass flashed potential to pop both in the box score and the intangibles.
Maass averaged 8.3 points and 3.0 assists in 23.1 minutes per game in conference play working in an offense and level of play foreign to her. Her shooting percentages, 41.4 percent from the field and 38.8 percent from deep in her first season suggest her game can carry more burden as she finds her spots.
The defense is feisty at 1.1 steals per game; a number that could jump as she learns to pressure her assignment without picking up cheap fouls.
Offensively, Maass' handles with the ball on a string and enough physicality to be a one-woman press break at times. Facing one-on-one pressure, Maass works at her own pace in a manner that suggests the person in front of her doesn't matter.
As is the case for most point guards, learning to read the second and third levels of the defense is the key to unlocking so much more. Already, she's shown ability to dribble probe or hit a diving big out of pick and roll, threading pocket passes through tight spaces.
Maas also has the ability to shoot on the move, from a spot-up, or off her own bounce. Showing confidence in pull-up jumpers when the defense steps under.
The Pirates run a structured offense predicated on getting the ball inside. Maass provides some chaotic seasoning to the offense. A necessary recipe if the Pirates are to find post season success. Late in the season, she was moved to the second unit along with Tori Carraway, giving her more freedom to seek her shot and create, helping to find a better niche.
For newcomers, Maass provides enough instant production and future potential to garner attention now.
Zhazze Brown | G | All-Conference
Zhazze Brown's value lies in her utility. At 5-foot-9 with long arms, Brown is a solid defender on the ball and in team schemes across multiple positions.
One of the few Pirates willing to fire away from deep, Brown hit 29.4 percent for the season but demanded respect out of the sheer number of big shots she converted on, either stopping opponents' runs or punctuating the Pirates' own.
In times of duress for the Pirates' young point guards, Brown was able to step in and lead the offense with a calming influence, getting Southwestern into its sets when things went off the rails early in the season. At her size, she's able to throw skip passes over the top of zone defenses, opening the Pirates' offense up to weak-side drives ahead of defensive rotations.
Tori Carraway | F | All-Conference
Tori Carraway has been a member of the All-SCAC team in each of her first three years at Southwestern University, earning First Team last year.
Only injury has slowed her down in the SCAC, rehabbing all offseason to return a few games into her senior season. With Woolfolk emerging while Carraway regained confidence in her leg, Tori worked as a secondary player in the starting lineup, triggering many of the high-low passes the Southwestern offense calls for.
A late-season lineup moved her to the second unit. Not as a demotion, but as a means to bring all of her skills back into full use, scoring 13, 17, 10, and 20 in four of the Pirates' last six games.
For the season, Carraway averaged 9.3 points on 46.8 percent shooting in conference play, grabbing 7.3 rebounds.
Teams pretty much know everything about each other heading into the tournament but in Carraway, the Pirates still have a top flight scoring option from the high and low post lurking on the second unit rounding into form.
Noel Pratts | F | All-Conference
Noel Pratts struggled with her shot some in her sophomore year, missing the first seven games of the season.
Still, few players in the conference can make the same impact on the perimeter Pratts has defensively. Pratts' defensive versatility allowed Grothe to move her across the board.
When shifted down to guard opposing point guards, Pratts smothered opponents at the point of attack, making everything a chore from bringing the ball up to making a simple entry passes. Deflections reset offenses, which bleeds shot clock, which plays into the Pirates' hands.
On the wings, Pratts was a threat lurking in passing lanes or digging in on post ups, using her long, 5-foot-9 frame to force the number of quality front court players in the SCAC to play in traffic.