Basketball Preview

November 28th, 2016 | No Comments | Posted in The Rockets
Toledo Men Expected to Compete for MAC Title

Since taking the reins at Toledo in 2010, Head Coach Tod Kowalczyk’s objective for the men’s program hasn’t wavered. He expects his teams to compete for the Mid-American Conference Championship every season and the 2016-17 campaign isn’t being viewed any differently.

“Our goal each year is to win the conference title and that will never change,” said Kowalczyk, who has guided UT to the second-most wins (64) in the MAC over the last three years. “We captured the regular-season title in 2014 and then came up just a little bit short in 2015. Last year was a season of transition for our program. We lost three really good all-league players from the previous year, brought in six new players, had one senior on our roster and we knew we would have some growing pains. I thought for 80 percent of our season, we were a team that had some really good moments.”

Toledo appeared ready to make some noise in conference play after opening February with back-to-back road wins over Kent State and eventual MAC Tournament champion Buffalo sandwiched by convincing home triumphs over Western Michigan and Miami. The Rockets entered their stretch run tied for first place in the MAC’s West Division but ended up dropping six of their last seven contests with each defeat being decided in the last four minutes.

“We showed we could compete with any team in the league last season,” Kowalczyk said. “We were extremely disappointed in how we finished the year, and we really struggled in close games down the stretch. We were in a lot of games with chances to win, but we didn’t get the job done.”

The Rockets’ seventh-year head coach is eager to get the upcoming season underway with a squad that he believes can be strong at both ends of the court.

“We’re a very skilled program, and I think one of our strengths will be our ability to shoot the basketball,” said Kowalczyk following three straight seasons of being one of the top two scoring squads in the MAC. “I think we can be good defensively as well, if we defend the three better. That was the one area we really struggled with last year, but the rest of our defense was pretty darn good.”

Kowalczyk also feels that the Rockets’ rebounding can improve thanks to a deeper, more athletic squad. UT paced the MAC in defensive rebound percentage (.757) but ranked ninth on the offensive end (.279).

“We were a very good defensive rebounding team last year, but we weren’t great on the offensive boards,” Kowalczyk said. “I think this year’s team can be really good on the offensive glass and an exceptional defensive rebounding team as well with the additions we’ve made to our roster.”

FRONTCOURT

Replacing first-team All-MAC center Nathan Boothe will be a tough task for Toledo. The Gurnee, IL native provided the Rockets with a prolific inside-outside threat, topping the conference with 19.3 points per game and ranking third with 9.0 rebounds per game. He also ranked second on the team with 3.4 assists per game and notched a 37.5 three-point field-goal percentage (33-of-88).

Kowalczyk believes he has some very good options, though, to fill the void left by a four-year starter who finished his Rocket career tied for 10th in points (1,494) and rebounds (777). “We’re obviously losing a great player in Nathan, but I think one of our strengths this season will again be our interior play,” Kowalczyk said. “We had two really talented post players – senior Steve Taylor Jr. (6-9, 240) and redshirt freshman Luke Knapke (6-11, 235) – sitting out, and they will join senior Zach Garber (6-10, 245), who had his best season for us last year.”

steve-taylor-jr-41Taylor joined the Rockets’ program in the spring of 2015 following three seasons at Marquette. He averaged 5.9 ppg and 5.0 rpg in his final campaign, including a career-best 20-point, seven-board effort at No. 20 Ohio State. He also grabbed a career-best 17 rebounds vs. St. John’s (March 4), the most by a Marquette player in Big East play in six seasons. “Steve is an unbelievably physical player who has a great feel for the game,” Kowalczyk said. “He’s much more of a perimeter player than he is a post guy even with his size. He’s really good at making basketball plays and basketball decisions. We’re going to move him all over the floor. We’re going to put him in some pick and rolls, we’re going to post him up and we’re going to isolate him on the perimeter. There’s a lot of ways he can be effective for us.”

Knapke, who gained nearly 25 pounds since setting foot on UT’s campus last summer, is expected to provide the Rockets another inside-outside threat in the frontcourt. During his prep career, Knapke earned Ohio Hoops Division IV second-team all-state honors as a senior at Marion Local High School.

“Luke had a great year in the weight room and is a lot bigger and stronger now,” Kowalczyk said. “His confidence and overall game is growing by leaps and bounds every day. Luke can step out on the perimeter or play in the post, and he certainly has an extremely bright future for us.”

Garber emerged as a key contributor for the Rockets last year when he joined UT’s starting lineup in mid-December. He finished the season with career highs in points (6.0), rebounds (4.8) and minutes (18.3) per game and paced the Rockets with a 62.1 field-goal percentage (59-of-95). “Zach took a big step last year when we put him in the starting lineup,” Kowalczyk said. “It was good to see him take advantage of that opportunity. Zach’s a smart player who provides intangibles that help teams win.”

Another candidate for playing time in the post is sophomore forward Taylor Adway (6-9, 215), who averaged 1.6 points and 1.6 rebounds in 8.1 minutes per contest.

“We’re extremely high on Taylor,” Kowalczyk said. “When I look back at last season, my biggest regret is I should have played Taylor more. Taylor has had a great off-season and did a lot of workouts both on the perimeter and in the post.”

Providing a perimeter presence in the frontcourt will be sophomore forward Nate Navigato (6-8, 215), one of the MAC’s top returning perimeter shooters. He averaged 8.4 points, 3.4 rebounds and 1.3 assists in 22.8 minutes per game and paced UT in 3PTFG% (38.4) and FT% (83.3). He also ranked second in three-point field goals made (61) and three-point field-goal attempts (159). “Nate is a great shooter and a big key for him is to get stronger,” Kowalczyk said. “He needs to spend a lot of time in the weight room and that will make a huge difference in terms of his rebounding and defense.”

Freshman James Gordon IV (6-5, 215) is expected to give the Rockets additional depth after spending his senior year at Simeon Career Academy in Chicago, IL. The Shelbyville, KY native averaged 13.1 points with the Wolverines after tallying 12.6 points per game and earning all-region honors as a junior at Shelby County High School. “James provides us athleticism and size at the wing position,” Kowalczyk said. “He gained a lot of experience this past year playing for one of the top high-school programs in the country. It was a great opportunity for him to test himself against some outstanding competition.”

BACKCOURT

jonathan-williams-vs-oakland-12-12-2015z The Rockets will feature a quicker, deeper backcourt this year with senior Jonathan Williams (6-3, 200) expected to lead the way. Williams will be joined by a pair of veterans – senior Jordan Lauf (6-5, 200) and sophomore Jaelan Sanford (6-4, 195) – as well as two newcomers – junior Lucas Antunez (6-3, 175) and freshman Justin Roberts (5-10, 170).

A Southfield, MI native, Williams earned third-team All-MAC honors after ranking third in the MAC with 17.6 points per game. He also topped the Rockets with 70 treys, registered 13, 20-point outings and tallied 14 or more points in all but three games.

“Jon-Jon took a huge step on the court with his maturity level last year,” Kowalczyk said. “I think he has to take an additional step in his development this season to be a first-team all-league player. Jon-Jon has to become better defensively, and cut down on his turnovers. Those are two areas that we’re really trying to impress upon him, and he’ll be better in both areas. If he can just take out one turnover a game, it would really help our program.”

Lauf has served as one of the Rockets’ key bench contributors over the past three years and averaged a career-best 4.6 points and 3.8 rebounds in a career-high 24.2 minutes per contest in 2015-16. “Jordan needs to continue to shoot the ball consistently and keep making all his tough, hustle-type plays,” Kowalczyk said. “He can guard multiple positions defensively and his leadership provides a lot of value to our program.”

Sanford started all 32 games and averaged 8.2 points per game in his rookie campaign. He registered a 35.0 three-point field-goal percentage and ranked third on the team with 48 three-point field goals and an 81.4 free-throw percentage. “Jaelan possesses great basketball instincts and was hands down our best perimeter defender in conference play last year,” Kowalczyk said. “He just needs to be more aggressive. When he was aggressive last season, he did what comes natural to him and made basketball plays.”

A Madrid, Spain native, Antunez played at North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene, ID and helped the Cardinals to a 31-2 win-loss mark in 2015-16 en route to a Scenic West Athletic Conference title and a No. 3 ranking in the final NJCAA poll. He earned second-team all-region accolades last season after averaging 8.4 points, 3.8 assists, 3.7 assists and 1.5 steals with a 45.1 FG%, 31.3 three-point FG% and 87.8 FT% in 23.5 minutes per game. “Lucas is a bigger point guard who’s a pass-first guy,” Kowalczyk said. “He’s a system player, and a guy that I think will really flourish in our system.”

A first-team Kansas Basketball Coaches Association (KBCA) all-state selection this past year, Roberts was tabbed the Lawrence Journal-World All-Area Player of Year after averaging 19.9 points, 3.1 assists and 3.0 steals per game as a senior for Lawrence High School. Roberts finished as the school’s all-time leading scorer with 1,549 points and led the Lions to Class 6A Final Four appearances as a junior and senior. “Justin is a coach’s son, who is tough-minded, understands the game, possesses great leadership qualities and a great floor presence,” Kowalczyk said. “The biggest key for him is being able to defend at the collegiate level. He’s very athletic and very capable.”

Toledo Women Will Feature Depth, Quickness and Athleticism in 2016-17

The Toledo women’s basketball roster will feature increased depth, improved quickness and athleticism at all spots in 2016-17.

UT will field a roster this year that includes two seniors, four juniors, five sophomores and three freshmen. As far as numbers go, the Rockets welcome back 63.9 percent of their scoring, 71.1 percent of their rebounding, 51.5 percent of their assists and 73.3 percent of their steals for this season.

“We will be quicker, more athletic and deeper than we’ve been in previous years,” ninth-year head coach Tricia Cullop said. “Our quickness and athleticism should help us improve on the defensive end and allow us to become quicker in transition offensively.”

A year ago, the Midnight Blue & Gold finished with a 17-13 overall record and a 12-6 ledger in the Mid-American Conference. UT placed third in the MAC West Division standings and earned a first-round bye in the league tournament. Toledo overcame a slow start to the year by winning 17 of its final 24 games. Along the way, they rattled off nine victories in a 10-game stretch, including two wins at the Arizona State University Classic to capture the tourney title.

“Last season, we challenged our team with one of the toughest non-conference schedules in program history,” Cullop said. “At one time it was considered the 15th-most difficult in the nation. Although we started out of the gate in a tough stretch, I thought it made us better. When we went to the Arizona State tournament, I believe everything came together and winning that tournament provided us the confidence we needed to finish the season strong.”

Despite last season’s solid finish, Toledo was not picked to participate in postseason play, marking only the third time in eight seasons the team did not make the postseason. Coach Cullop hopes the returnees use the sour taste left in their mouths as a bit of motivation for the 2016-17 campaign.

“We narrowly missed the Postseason WNIT field last season, as their contact confirmed we were on the board until the end,” Cullop said. “It was frustrating to finish the season with an RPI of 117 and see teams with RPI’s ranging from 140-160 make the field. While we can’t control what a committee decides, we can only control our resume. Our goal has always been to make the post-season with the NCAA Tournament as the main target. We also have to remind everyone that we finished fourth in the MAC last year and earned a bye in the league tournament with a young team. We only graduated two players. I’m very excited about the potential of this year’s team, especially because our returnees are hungry for more and will serve as great mentors for our newcomers.”

With 14 players on the roster, Cullop expects the Rockets to maintain their efficient offense and improve their defensive efforts.

“Last season, we were very productive on the offensive end (fourth in scoring, second in overall field-goal percentage and third in three-point field-goal percentage) in MAC games,” Cullop said. “This year, our focus will be to improve our defense and rebounding. We are bringing in a strong recruiting class that should help us in these two areas, and we will be stressing both with our team.”

Added Cullop, “We also want to run more this season. I thought we improved greatly in that area last year, but we can still be better. I would also like to be more aggressive on the defensive end and use a full-court press more.”

FRONTCOURT

NCAA BASKETBALL:  Women's - Toledo at Bowling GreenJanice Monakana (London, England), a 6-foot-0 forward, may be as versatile as any player on the Rockets’ roster. Monakana possesses the ability to drive to the basket, post up and shoot from beyond the arc.

Overall in 2015-16, Monakana averaged 11.1 points, a team-high 5.9 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 0.2 blocks and 0.9 steals in 26.4 minutes per game, en route to earning honorable mention All-MAC recognition. She started 28 of 30 contests and was tied for third in the MAC in free throw percentage (.833, 85-of-102), 13th in defensive caroms (4.3 rpg), 18th in overall rebounding and 21st in scoring.

The three-year letterwinner scored in double figures on 17 occasions last season, the third-highest total on the squad, including a career-high 28 points at Bowling Green (Feb. 17).

The 2016-17 team captain led the Rockets in rebounding on a squad-best 10 occasions, thefts nine times, scoring on seven occasions and blocked shots three times. In MAC contests, Monakana tallied 11.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 0.7 apg, 0.2 bpg and 0.7 spg in 26.5 mpg. Monakana currently ranks 10th in school history in career free throw percentage (.772, 207-of-268).  “Janice is one of the highest basketball IQ players on our team,” Cullop said. “She understands the game, how to score and has matured every year that she’s been here. She’s been effective driving to the basket, posting up and shooting from three-point land. We’ve been working hard on her mid-range game. Even though she was one of our top rebounders, I believe she can excel even more in this area.”

NCAA BASKETBALL:  Women's - Ohio at ToledoOne of two seniors on the team, Sophie Reecher (Byron, IL), a 6-foot-3 center, will once again be one of the Rockets’ leaders in 2016-17. Reecher possesses a soft touch around the basket as well as 15-foot range. A three-year letterwinner, she has started 58 of 63 games over the last two seasons.

Overall in 2015-16, Reecher averaged 4.3 points, 3.6 rebounds, 0.2 assists, 0.3 blocks and 0.4 steals in 16.4 minutes. She ranked second on the team in overall field-goal percentage (.535, 54-of-101), tied for third in rejections (10) and games started (29) and fifth in overall rebounding.

The three-time team captain also scored in double figures on four occasions last season, the sixth-highest total on the team, including a season-high 14 points vs. Columbia in the first round of the ASU Classic. The 2015-16 Academic All-MAC honoree led the Rockets in blocked shots on seven occasions, thefts four times, rebounding on three occasions and scoring once.

“Sophie had a really strong off-season,” Cullop said. “I have been very impressed with her work ethic, attention to detail and competitiveness. Sophie really wants to be a go-to low block scorer for us and if she continues to work on this, I fully intend for her to be. In addition to her basketball ability, Sophie is a very strong team leader.”

Another veteran back in UT’s frontcourt in 2016-17 will be sophomore Kaayla McIntyre (Toledo, OH). A 6-foot-2 center, McIntyre possesses great footwork, can block shots and rebound, as well as score on the low block or from the high-post area.

A 6-foot-2 center, McIntyre stepped up her game against league competition in 2016, tallying 8.6 points, a team-high 5.7 caroms, 0.5 helpers, a squad-best 0.8 rejections and 0.4 thefts in 20.5 minutes. She led the league in overall field-goal percentage (.645, 71-of-110), as well as ranking tied for eighth in rejections, 15th in defensive caroms (4.2 rpg) and 20th in overall rebounding in league contests.

The 2015-16 MAC All-Freshman Team honoree also scored in double digits on six occasions in conference match-ups, including a season-high 18 points vs. MAC West Division champion Central Michigan. The Toledo native was credited with the game-winning offensive putback with 1.7 seconds left in regulation vs. the Chippewas.

Overall in 2015-16, McIntyre appeared in 27 games, averaging 6.6 points, 4.5 rebounds, 0.4 assists, a team-high 0.6 blocks and 0.3 steals in 16.3 minutes. The 2015-16 MAC co-Sixth Player of the Year shot a single-season league-record 64.3 percent (81-of-126) from the floor. She led the Rockets in rejections nine times, rebounding on five occasions, thefts four times and scoring once.

“It still amazes me that Kaayla broke not only the UT overall field-goal percentage record, but the MAC record as well for a season,” Cullop said. “She has great touch around the basket and has proven herself as one of the most efficient low-block scorers in our league. Kaayla is working hard to improve her range, versatility and strength. We counted on her as a go-to scorer as a freshman, and all those minutes and experience should translate to more confidence this year.”

Junior Jada Woody (Canton, MI), junior Michaela Rasmussen (Chaska, MN) and sophomore Sarah St-Fort (Montreal, PQ) should also contend for playing minutes on the interior in 2016-17.

A 6-foot-1 wing, Woody has the ability to defend any player on the perimeter, as well as being a good passer in the open court. The two-year letterwinner was a solid contributor for Toledo in 2015-16, tallying 2.3 points, 1.3 rebounds, 0.2 assists, 0.3 blocks and 0.2 steals in 9.8 minutes per contest. The Canton, MI native totaled a career-high 11 points on two occasions last year against Arizona in the season opener and Arkansas-Pine Bluff in UT’s non-conference finale. Woody led the Rockets in rejections on eight occasions and thefts once.

“Jada really shot the ball well in off-season workouts,” Cullop said. “She saw key minutes last year backing up the power forward position. She’s quick enough to guard the two through four positions.”

A 6-foot-1 forward, Rasmussen runs the floor extremely well and can play inside or on the perimeter. She appeared in 22 games off the bench in 2015-16 and averaged 1.0 points, 1.4 rebounds, 0.1 assists and 0.2 steals in 8.9 minutes.

The two-year letterwinner totaled a season-high six boards and one helper in a season-best 26 minutes vs. Harvard in the consolation round at the URI Tip-Off Classic.  “Michaela really impressed our staff in the off-season,” Cullop said. “She worked on her three-point consistency, a quicker release and her versatility.”

A 5-foot-9 wing, St-Fort is a talented on-ball defender, as well as an explosive driver who can hit a pull-up jumper. Overall in 2015-16, St-Fort contributed 1.1 points, 1.4 rebounds, 0.1 assists and 0.3 steals in 6.8 minutes in 28 contests off the bench. She tallied a season-high six points, two boards and a season-tying best two thefts in only seven minutes vs. Arkansas-Pine Bluff in UT’s non-league finale. “Sarah really emerged toward the end of last season,” Cullop said. “I believe she can become one of the best defenders in the MAC. She’s strong, quick and very athletic.”

Also expected to be factors in the frontcourt will be junior Mae Tshitenge (Nuechatel, Switzerland) and newcomer Tanaya Beacham (Youngstown, OH).

A 5-foot-10 forward, Tshitenge transferred from the Redlands Community College and will have two years of eligibility remaining. She is a solid rebounder and ball handler, to go along with being a good three-point shooter.

Tshitenge started all 29 games for the Cougars in 2015-16, averaging a team-high 13.6 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.3 steals, en route to collecting first-team all-conference and first-team NJCAA All-Region II accolades. She shot 53.3 percent (153-of-287) from the field, including 43.9 percent (29-of-66) from three-point range, and 81.9 percent (59-of-72) from the charity stripe. Tshitenge helped the team post a 23-8 overall record, including a 13-5 ledger in the division. She also poured in at least 10 points on 25 occasions throughout the year, including a season-high 22 points against Hill College.

“Mae can play inside or out,” Cullop said. “She’s a great rebounder and has the ability to shoot the three. She’s also a gifted defender.”

Beacham, a 6-foot-1 forward, is an unselfish player who provides plenty of energy. She is capable of playing multiple positions and possesses a soft shooting touch around the basket. Beacham tallied 14.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.0 assists and 1.2 steals per game as a senior team captain at nearby Toledo Rogers High School. She played a key role in helping the Rams successfully defend their City League title and reach the Division II regional final, en route to garnering third-team all-state, first-team all-district and first-team all-conference honors. She scored in double figures in 21 of 28 games, including a season-high 25 points against Notre Dame Academy. A three-star recruit, Beacham was listed as the No. 20 forward nationally by espn.com.

“Tanaya is a power forward who can really score and rebound,” Cullop said. “She’s a great athlete and a good scorer who I think will help us defensively and improve our rebounding efforts.”

BACKCOURT

j-a-bravo-harriott-vs-bowling-green-4The quarterback of UT’s backcourt in 2016-17 will be junior Jay-Ann Bravo-Harriott (London, England). Bravo-Harriott, a 5-foot-10 guard, averaged 11.0 points, 3.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists and a team-high 1.3 steals in 30.9 minutes in 2015-16, en route to earning honorable mention All-MAC recognition. One of two Rockets to start all 30 games a year ago, the 2016-17 team captain ranked 14th in the MAC in helpers and three-point field-goal percentage (.341, 46-of-135), 15th in assist/turnover ratio (1.0, 92-93) and 23rd in scoring.

The London, England native scored in double figures on 18 occasions in 2015-16, the second-highest total on the team, including a season-high 24 points vs. Western Michigan (Jan. 9). In MAC contests, Bravo-Harriott tallied 12.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 3.1 apg and a squad-best 1.3 spg in 31.6 mpg.

The 2015-16 Academic All-District 5 recipient led the Rockets in thefts on a squad-best 13 occasions, helpers seven times and scoring and rebounding on four occasions.

“Jay-Ann is a very intelligent player who has the best work ethic on our team,” Cullop said. “She’s pushed herself harder than anyone during off-season workouts and on her own to improve her ball-handling and the quickness of her shooting release. Even though everyone talks about her offense, I’m very excited about her defense. Last year, she was our team’s best defender, and I’m excited to see what this season brings.”

Other key components in Toledo’s backcourt will be sophomore Mikaela Boyd (Hillside, IL) and sophomore Halee Printz (Tipp City, OH).

Boyd, a 5-foot-7 guard, provided a spark off the bench for Toledo in 2015-16. A fierce competitor, Boyd tallied 2.8 points, 1.7 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 0.5 steals in 9.4 minutes in 27 games.

The third-year Rocket contributed at least seven points on four occasions last season, including a season-tying best nine points and a season-tying high two thefts in 24 minutes vs. Eastern Michigan (Feb. 24). She also totaled nine points against Arizona in the season opener. Boyd led the Rockets in scoring and steals on two occasions and rebounding, assists and blocked shots once.

“Mikaela has incredible quickness,” Cullop said. “She’s worked hard to improve her shot and ball-handling skills. Her competitiveness and drive are fun to watch.”

Printz, a 5-foot-11 guard, is a highly-skilled combo guard who can shoot, pass and handle the ball. She possesses the ability to get to the basket, score and draw fouls.  Printz provided quality minutes for Toledo in 2015-16, averaging 3.8 points, 1.4 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 0.4 steals in 16.8 minutes per game. She ranked third on the team in three-point field-goal percentage (.371, 23-of-62), fourth in helpers (40) and three-point field-goals made (23), fifth in minutes played and free throw percentage (.654, 17-of-26) and tied for fifth in thefts (12).

The Tipp City, OH native scored at least seven points on four occasions during the year, including a season-best 13 points in 24 minutes vs. Dayton. Printz led the Rockets in thefts on three occasions, assists twice and scoring and blocked shots once. “Halee has great offensive instincts, vision and is one of the best passers on the team,” Cullop said.

Also joining the mix will be sophomore Olivia Cunningham (Horn Lake, MS), freshman Sara Rokkanen (Helsinki, Finland) and freshman Mariella Santucci (Bologna, Italy).

A 5-foot-7 guard, Cunningham transferred from Murray State University and sat out the 2015-16 season per NCAA rules.

Cunningham started 26 of 29 games for the Ohio Valley Conference-member Racers in 2014-15, contributing 8.9 points, 2.5 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 0.4 steals. She shot 37.1 percent (93-of-251) from the field, including 20.9 percent (9-of-43) from beyond the arc, and 61.2 percent (63-of-103) from the charity stripe in 23.2 minutes. Cunningham also scored in double figures on 12 occasions during the year, including a season-high 24 points against Tennessee Tech.

“Olivia received a lot of experience and playing time as a freshman at Murray State,” Cullop said. “She is a combo guard who brings us speed, quickness, athleticism and is someone who can score in a variety of ways.”

A 5-foot-10 wing, Rokkanen contributed 6.5 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.0 steals in 13.5 minutes per game for Finland’s National Team during the qualifying round for next summer’s FIBA EuroBasket Championships. She shot 41.7 percent (5-of-12) from the field, including 33.3 percent (2-of-6) from three-point range, and 50.0 percent (1-of-2) from the charity stripe in two contests. Rokkanen poured in 13 points and two thefts in 20 minutes against Spain.

“Sara is an incredible three-point shooter who also has a mid-range game,” Cullop said. “It will be fun to play her opposite of Jay-Ann (Bravo-Harriott) as it will put opponents in a tough position.”

A 5-foot-6 guard, Santucci has a good IQ for the game and possesses solid ball-handling, passing and shooting skills. Most recently, she contributed 13.1 points, 3.9 boards and 1.7 dimes in 27.6 minutes per contest for the Italian Club team, Magika Castel San Pietro, in the 2016 A2 Italian Basketball League. She shot 42.9 percent (85-of-198) from the field, including 31.0 percent (39-of-126) from beyond the arc, and 61.4 percent (81-of-132) from the charity stripe in 28 games.

An experienced national team performer as well, Santucci averaged 7.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.9 steals in 22.1 minutes per game for the Italian National Team at the 2015 U-18 European Championship (Division A). She scored in double figures in three of nine contests, including a tourney-best 15 points and seven caroms in 32 minutes against Spain. Santucci ranked seventh in thefts and 12th in helpers at the championships. “Mariella is a point guard who could also play the off-guard position,” Cullop said. “She can handle the ball, pass and score. I love her instincts and IQ. She also has great experience having played for the Italian National team.”

Print Friendly
Did you like this? Share it:

Unfinished Business: Senior Kareem Hunt wants a college degree…and a MAC Championship

September 6th, 2016 | No Comments | Posted in The Rockets

By Sasha Mandros, Athletic Communications graduate assistant

Football HeadshotsIn many ways, Kareem Hunt’s senior year in college is a matter of unfinished business.

Following a junior season in which he rushed for almost 1,000 yards for the second time in his career, Toledo’s star running back had the option of entering the NFL Draft last spring. It was tempting. Like almost every other kid from his neighborhood in Willoughby, Ohio, Hunt has always dreamed of playing in the pros.

But after some consideration, Hunt opted to return for his fourth and final year as a Rocket. As he weighed the pros and cons of leaving school early, Hunt came to the conclusion that there were too many things left for him to accomplish at UT.

First and foremost, Hunt wants to get his diploma. A criminal justice major, Hunt is on track to become the first person in his family to earn a college degree. Hunt said his family supported whatever decision he made, but he also knew what it would mean for them to see him walk across the stage of Savage Arena on graduation day.

Football vs BGSU“My mom and my grandma have been on my side no matter what path I was leaning toward,” said Hunt. “I know that whatever I accomplish with football will make them proud. But I can tell how important a degree is to them. No one in my family has earned a college degree and all they’ve ever wanted was to provide a better life for me than they had themselves. I want to take full advantage of their sacrifices that have brought me to UT and of the opportunity that this team has given me.

“And personally, I really want that degree to fall back on because I have no idea if things will work out for me in football for one reason or another.”

As for football, Hunt’s decision to remain at UT is motivated by the same goal shared by his teammates, not to mention all of Rocket Nation—a Mid-American Conference Championship.

“The goal of our team has not changed once since the first day I arrived at Toledo…to win a MAC Championship,” said Hunt. “Some reporters roll their eyes because we’ve been saying the same thing for four years, but it truly is that important to us.

Kareem Hunt vs. EMU 2015a2“I can’t leave now if I have one more opportunity to help my brothers achieve this. When I weighed my options, all I had to do was just picture me and my team finally winning that trophy. If we win that title this season, it will be for all the alumni who shared our same goal in the past 12 years. I know those alums have our backs and Rocket Nation is with us every step of the way.”

Of course, by playing another year in a Rocket uniform, Hunt has the opportunity to clear up some other unfinished business by etching his name into the Toledo record book. Going into this season, Hunt has rushed for 3,470 yards—just 1,380 yards away from surpassing leader and 10-year NFL veteran Chester Taylor, who gained 4,849 yards from 1998-2001. Hunt has set some individual goals for himself this season, but only because he knows reaching them will give his team a better chance at winning.

Kareem Hunt vs Iowa State 9-19-15a“I want at least 1,500 rushing yards this season, and I want to improve on my career-best season touchdowns of 16 from two years ago,” said Hunt, who rushed for a career-high 1,631 yards as a sophomore. “And I’m definitely trying to reach at least 100 yards per game. I broke my streak last year (12 straight 100-yard games) and I was really disappointed when I let that happen. But those records aren’t important to me unless reaching them leads our team to a MAC Championship.”

Hunt would actually be a lot closer to Taylor’s school rushing record if it wasn’t for injuries. He missed three games and major parts of two others in 2014. Last year he missed three games and often played with nagging ailments when he was in the lineup. Injuries notwithstanding, Hunt sees a common denominator in how well he has performed over the past three seasons.

“I played my best ball when the entire team was involved in producing the best plays, rather than me trying to create a touchdown play every time I got the ball,” said Hunt. “My stats looked the way they did because my team provided me with all of those opportunities to make big plays.”

Despite the records and accolades, Hunt feels like he has only scratched the surface of his potential. And he knows a big reason he returned for one more season as Rocket is to be able to say he gave it everything he could to help the Rockets bring a title back to Toledo.

“I’ve only got one more shot at it,” said Hunt. “I haven’t played my best ball yet in this Toledo uniform.”

Kareem Hunt vs. NIU 2015j

Print Friendly
Did you like this? Share it:

Rockets ready to battle for MAC championship

September 6th, 2016 | No Comments | Posted in The Rockets

First-year coach Jason Candle has veteran team focused, united in its quest for a championship

Boca Raton BowlThe more things change, the more they stay the same. At least that’s what fans of the Toledo Rockets are hoping this year.

The Rockets have a new head coach, an almost completely new coaching staff and many new faces in key positions on the field, especially on defense. But first-year head coach Jason Candle is confident that the 2016 brand of Rockets will live up to the proud legacy of the program—with an eye on achieving something that has narrowly eluded UT in the past decade.

“We have a solid foundation, so our challenge is to build from that foundation,” said Candle. “We are going to be diligent to continue the success we’ve had here. At the same time, I know what the expectation is here. We haven’t won a MAC Championship since 2004. I know that’s what the people of Toledo are starving for, and so are our players and coaches. That’s always going to be our primary goal.”

Terry Swanson

Terry Swanson

Toledo was 10-2 in 2015, its sixth consecutive winning season, including a 16-12 triumph over No. 18 Arkansas and a 32-17 victory over No. 24 Temple in the Marmot Boca Raton Bowl. The Rockets did lose some key players from last year’s squad but plenty of talent remains. On offense, the Rockets return a pair of All-MAC running backs (senior Kareem Hunt and junior Terry Swanson), All-MAC wide receiver and return man Corey Jones, four starters from the offensive line and junior Logan Woodside, the starting quarterback from 2014. The losses were greater on defense, but 19 letterwinners return, including senior All-MAC safety DeJuan Rogers, two-time All-MAC senior defensive tackle Treyvon Hester and junior linebacker Ja’Wuan Woodley, the 2015 Marmot Boca Raton Defensive MVP.

Toledo was picked to finish in second place in the MAC’s West Division by the league’s media. But Candle said that pre-season predictions and previous success will have no bearing on the outcome of the 2016 season.

Corey Jones

Corey Jones

“We’re a new team,” said Candle, who enters his first full season as UT’s head coach after seven seasons as an assistant. “Last year was a great season but those 10 wins aren’t going to win any football games for us this year. This is a different team with new senior leadership, new players, new coaches—a new brand of football. Every team takes on its own identity and takes on its own attitude and approach to the game.”

Senior running back Kareem Hunt agreed that the team is focused on the season ahead.

“We don’t pay attention to the polls,” Hunt said. “It doesn’t matter to us what people think of our team. We know what we need to do. Once the season starts, the polls don’t matter anyway.”

Hunt and the Rockets have a challenging schedule ahead of them. UT plays eight schools that made bowl appearances in 2015, including defending MAC champion Bowling Green and MAC West Division foes Northern Illinois and Western Michigan. Those last two games are on the road in November, making them crucial to Toledo’s title chances.

Print Friendly
Did you like this? Share it:

Capotosto, Boothe Show the Way

January 28th, 2016 | No Comments | Posted in From Our Alumni, The Rockets

Capotosto Leads the Rockets in the Right Direction in 2015-16 

By Brian DeBenedictis, associate director of athletic communication

Women's Basketball vs ArizonaLuminary, manager, pacesetter. These three adjectives thoroughly describe senior Ana Capotosto. But perhaps most important of all, the fifth-year Rocket is the physical and emotional leader for the Toledo women’s basketball team.

She understands the importance of leadership and it is a role she does not take lightly.

“Leadership is something I take great pride in,” said Capotosto, who graduated with a degree in childhood education last month. “It’s very important for me to not only lead by example, but also vocally. I need to make sure everyone is on the same page at all times, and that we’re trying to accomplish the same goals.”

Before the start of this season, Capotosto was named a team captain for a second straight year in a vote of her teammates. The Saugatuck, Mich., native was humbled to once again be selected the squad’s ringleader.

Women's Basketball vs Arizona“I was extremely honored to be named a captain for a second-consecutive season by my teammates,” Capotosto said. “It meant a lot to know that my teammates respect me, and appreciated the job I did as a captain last year.”

Capotosto learned quite a bit about herself as a captain last year, and subsequently focused on some of the things she needed to refine for this season.

“I thought I did just okay as the captain last year, but there were a lot of things I needed to improve on,” said Capotosto, who became engaged to Brad Gehres on April 18, 2014. “I was very happy and humbled to get another chance to build off of last year and continue to grow in that role.”

Capotosto is continually evolving in her role as a leader each day and understands the demands that come with it.

“Being a leader is not always easy,” said Capotosto, who spent the past semester teaching second grade at nearby Old Orchard Elementary school. “It’s hard to step out of your comfort zone and help keep people in line during the grind of a long season. It’s also difficult to teach them to always make good decisions.”

Head Coach Tricia Cullop is appreciative of Capotosto’s effort as the Rockets’ leader.

“Ana has done a great job at being our team’s selfless leader,” Cullop said. “She not only leads by example, but also vocally. Our players look up to Ana because she does things the right way. I’m so impressed with her growing maturity over her times at UT.”

Classmate and fellow captain Brenae Harris echoed Coach Cullop’s comments.

“Ana is a person with strong character and values and a big heart,” Harris said. “She also makes great decisions and is somebody that I enjoy playing with.”

A_Capotosto_vs_Findlay_3_So far in 2015-16, Capotosto is backing up her strong leadership qualities with excellent play on the court. The three-point specialist is having an All-MAC caliber campaign and currently ranks in the Top 20 in the league in three-point field goal percentage, three-point field goals made, overall rebounding and scoring.

With conference play now in full swing, Capotosto knows her role as a leader is ultra-important. She also understands that challenges that await her and her teammates over the next two months.

“Our team understands the importance of conference play,” Capotosto said. “We need to be at our best at all times, especially myself being a leader and captain. All the schools know each other so well. There is very little margin for error.”

With Capotosto leading the way and with the support of a group of talented teammates, that just might be the right recipe to help Toledo secure a second MAC regular-season championship in the last four years.

“I know we have a lot of talent on this team,” said Capotosto, “and my goal is to help steer it in the direction of a MAC title.”

Nathan Boothe’s Emergence as Top-Flight Center Keying Rockets’ Success

Nathan Boothe-AkronNathan Boothe’s transformation as a basketball player began the minute he committed to the University of Toledo late in the summer of 2011.

The Rockets’ senior center tipped the scales at nearly 280 pounds prior to his senior year at Warren Township High School in Gurnee, Ill. But Head Coach Tod Kowalczyk still saw the potential Boothe possessed.

“I really liked his hands and the way he passed the ball,” said Kowalczyk about watching Boothe play on the AAU circuit. “He was on a very good team and was surrounded by good players. You could see that he knew how to play the game and that he had the tools to be a solid post player.”

Once Boothe made his college commitment, his AAU coach, former Chicago Bull Dickey Simpkins, told him that if he worked to get in better shape he would have an opportunity to play right away. That’s when the big man committed himself to a new lifestyle.

“I had gradually put on weight all through high school with some bad eating habits,” Boothe said. “When I saw the chance I had at Toledo, I started to run a lot, I reduced the size of the portions I ate and I pretty much eliminated fast food from my diet.”

Nathan Boothe vs WVTech 11.14.15 (6)That change, as well as a lot of time spent in the weight room, has helped Boothe become one of top players at the mid-major level as he earned a spot recently on CollegeInsiders.com’s mid-season Mid-Major All-American Team. He ranks as one of the MAC’s top two scorers along with junior Jonathan Williams and also became the first Rocket ever to register a triple-double earlier this season.

“Nathan has always been a good player for us, but he took another step last summer in developing his game,” Kowalczyk said. “He worked hard on his post moves and foot work, and that’s led to his success this season.”

In the offseason, Boothe and assistant coach Jason Kalsow watched a lot of video of successful big men, like former Wisconsin All-American Frank Kaminsky.

“We were able to add a few different things to Nathan’s offensive game,” Kalsow. “We watched other big guys who were the focal points of their team’s offense because we knew he would play a big role for us this season.”

Boothe’s success on the court is nothing new to a family filled with athletes. His father was a standout baseball player at Northern Illinois and he has three uncles who played college football. His brother David was an offensive guard on Hope College’s football team and his sister Sarah played basketball at Stanford.

After giving both baseball and football a try as a youngster, Boothe decided to follow in Sarah’s footsteps.

“I played football when I was younger because of my size, but I got rocked quite a few times so I stopped,” Boothe reminisced. “I didn’t have the patience to play baseball so that put an end to that. Since I was so tall, I decided basketball was my best option.”

Once Boothe decided to focus on the hardwood, he was able to observe the way his older sister played. He certainly was fortunate to have that chance because Sarah was named Illinois Ms. Basketball in 2008.

Boothe-Oakland“Sarah’s game is similar to mine, and I was able to pick up a few tips along the way from watching her play,” Boothe said. “She was a good passer and could stretch the floor with her outside shot like I do. That was one of the key attributes that helped her get to the next level.”

Which is what the Rockets’ lone senior hopes to do once his collegiate career winds down. Boothe would like to play professionally, but for now he is just concentrating on providing the necessary leadership for UT to make a run at a Mid-American Conference Championship.

“I’ve tried to show our young guys the work ethic it takes to be successful at the collegiate level,” said Boothe, who is serving as a mentor to the team’s seven freshmen. “When I was a freshman, I learned a lot from (former three-time All-MAC honoree) Rian Pearson. He would always bring me in the gym to get extra reps and make sure I stayed in shape. I’ve tried to do that with our freshmen as well, because all that hard work makes a big difference in becoming a better player.”

That’s a lesson Boothe became familiar with even before becoming a Rocket, and one that each of his teammates would be wise to follow.

Print Friendly
Did you like this? Share it:

New Format Has Rockets Looking Forward to 2016 MAC Tournament

January 28th, 2016 | No Comments | Posted in From Our Alumni, The Rockets

What’s old is what’s new for Mid-American Conference basketball. And UT’s two head coaches are just fine with that.

The 2016 MAC Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournaments, held annually at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena, will return to a playoff format that was in place from 2000-11. Following first-round games at campus sites for both the men and women on Monday, March 7, the women’s quarterfinals will be held on Wednesday, March 9 followed by the men’s quarterfinals on Thursday, March 10. The women’s semifinals are set for the afternoon of Friday, March 11 with the men’s semifinals to follow that evening.  The championship games for both men and women are set for Saturday, March 12.

In the past four years, the league’s top two seeds were placed directly into the semifinals.  In addition, the No. 3 and 4 seeds automatically qualified for the quarterfinals. As a result, the bottom eight of the league’s 12 teams had to win five games to win the MAC Tournament and earn the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Toledo’s coaches think the return to the traditional format is fairer and will make for more exciting matchups in the early rounds.

“I believe this is a positive change for our conference tournament,” said Tod Kowalczyk, now in his sixth season as the men’s head coach. “This makes the event great for our fans because they can see a lot of exciting basketball in a true tournament format.”

Added women’s head coach Tricia Cullop, now in her eighth year at the Toledo helm, “I like the fact that the MAC is going back to the old format. I think the last couple of years there was too long of a break before teams advanced to the final games. Going back to this format will help keep teams sharp. It’s important to maintain the fundamentals. It’s also hard to replicate what you face in a game in practice. Having the opportunity to play some earlier round games will help everybody.”

Both UT’s teams played well in early MAC action are expected to be a factor in the tournament. The women won four of their first five MAC games thanks to the hot shooting of senior guards Brenae Harris (14.9 ppg) and Ana Capotosto (11.5 ppg). The UT men are led by the league’s top two scorers, senior center Nathan Boothe (19.8 ppg) and junior guard Jonathan Williams (18.6 ppg).

Print Friendly
Did you like this? Share it:
Return to top of page