For Bradley women’s basketball, there are a wealth of reasons to believe that the best stretch in program history will continue this season.
On the heels of a 2019-2020 campaign that saw the Braves finish 22-7 and 13-5 in the Missouri Valley Conference, the Braves enter the upcoming season with higher expectations than ever before. Bradley was chosen to finish second in the conference behind Missouri State in the preseason poll that was released on Oct. 13.
But why all the hype for these Braves, who are slated to begin MVC play on Dec. 31 versus Drake?
For starters, Bradley returns four mainstays from last season’s starting lineup, including preseason Missouri Valley Conference player of the year Lasha Petree and fellow first-team honoree Gabi Haack.
Petree and Haack are staying focused on the end goal despite the accolades.
“Those are just preseason awards,” Petree said. “It’s a great honor to be recognized in that way. But personally, it doesn’t change how we look at the season and how we’re going to go about things.”
Though attention is rightfully directed toward Petree and Haack, Bradley boasts a deep team that will require a careful look at the entire roster.
“Yes, everyone’s gonna be focused on them,” head coach Andrea Gorski said. “And they’re gonna be probably one and two on the scouting report. But you can’t really spend all your time focusing on those two, because there’s a lot of weapons ready to go on our team.”
Petree and Haack are complimented nicely by the return of fellow starters Nyjah White and Tatum Koenig. White provides a balanced attack that features scoring and rebounding, while Koenig is a floor general that gives the Braves a strong presence at the point.
“I mean, it’s hard not to have your top defender not guarding Nyjah,” Gorski said. “And like I said, Tatum’s come along so well.”
Mahri Petree is also expected to have a big sophomore season. Last season, Petree was a member of the MVC’s all-freshman team and emerged as a regular threat from behind the arc in 29 appearances off the bench.
“She’s so versatile,” Gorski said. “This year, it’s gonna be hard not to have her on the floor. She’s just improved in so many areas defensively, especially. She’s always one of our best rebounders … I have seen a lot of progress with her.”
Though four of Bradley’s five starters will return and continue playing at a high level, there is one major area that Bradley will have to address: the loss of Chelsea Brackmann due to graduation.
Brackmann departed as Bradley’s all-time leading rebounder and averaged 9.5 points per game in her 117 career games.
Options exist for filling the role vacated by Brackmann. Returning senior forward Emily Marsh headlines the cast of post players available at Andrea Gorski’s disposal, and could play a big role in the conference portion of the season after recovering from hip surgery. Six-foot-2-inch forward Veronika Roberts should also be in store for a big sophomore campaign.
From there, the Braves boast a strong cast of newcomers, including 6-foot-4-inch center Uche Ufochukwu, who will play out her senior season on the Hilltop after spending the previous four seasons at Winthrop. Although her tenure with the Eagles was affected by injuries, she should make an immediate impact in Peoria as the tallest player on the Braves’ roster.
Freshmen Tete Danso, Sami Martin and Isis Fitch round out a deep frontcourt for Bradley that should have little problem defending the basket. It’s no surprise that four of Bradley’s five newcomers have the opportunity to make contributions early on.
“Our five newcomers fit in perfectly with our team,” Gorski said. “They just blend in really well. They’re quick learners, they’re very competitive as well. And they all bring something different.”
Bradley’s other newcomer, junior Chloe Rice, offers the Braves an added backcourt depth. Rice played regularly in a depth role at St. Louis and joins Aannah Interrante and Violetta Verano in the ability to play quality minutes at any point in the game.
Expect Bradley to use all of the assets at its disposal as the season moves along.
“I think last year, we played seven, eight continuously decent minutes,” Gorski said. “I think this year, you’re going to see us in 10 or 11. So, very deep team, we’re two or three deep at every position. And that’s the first time that’s been the case since I’ve been here.”
To focus too intently on last season is a grave mistake. This year’s Bradley squad – and every Division-I team, for that matter – is a new one with a fresh start. But what was left unfinished last season was the story of arguably the best season in Bradley’s history, with the ongoing pandemic forcing the cancellation of postseason play.
How does that change the way Bradley’s key players are focusing on the upcoming season?
“The main goal of your season is to get to that tournament, and then win that tournament,” Haack said. “So just not having that just kind of felt like our season was unfinished, like, we have something [still left] to do. So I’m definitely extra hungry.”
Petree agrees, and added that the team won’t approach this season any different than previous years.
“But I definitely think we have more motivation this year to go get a championship because we did get cut and that kind of hurt … to not even get to play for the chance of the championship,” Petree said.
COVID-19 also had an impact on the offseason, as Bradley and other teams were forced to design summers around largely individual workouts. But that hasn’t been a huge detriment to the Braves, who continue to gel as a unit.
“We did a lot of individual workouts and everything,” Haack said. “But recently, [in] the last month, we’ve been able to play together. And we’re learning how to play together with the newcomers. And it’s been really fun, like we’ve been working really hard, really competitive.”
With a new season on the horizon, the Braves are ready to get back to work.
“We’ve got a lot of soul on this team,” Petree said. “I think this team is hungry. It’s the team where every single person on the team wants a ring. Everyone wants the championship, everyone’s on the same page, and everyone’s looking to get everyone else better too, not just themselves. So I think that we’re gonna be really good with that.”