Though it may not be obvious from their 14-8 record, women's basketball was starting from scratch in many areas this year. With a new coach and a new offensive plan, the team had to learn a new way of playing the game. They've come a long way since then.
It was easy to predict that the team's veterans, including second-year Korry Schwanz and third-years Susie Gutowski and Janae Winner, would benefit from the change. The three are playing the most open basketball of their Chicago careers. The team's most surprising assets, however, have been a pair of newcomers who each have their own ways of dominating the court. Between the speedy Nofi Mojidi and the strong Nicaya Rapierboth UAA Rookie of the Year candidatesthis season has been the year of the first-year.
Both players made their mark in the season's opening week. While Mojidi struggled in Chicago's season opener against Northland, taking only one shot and scoring two points with two steals, Rapier came off the bench and fought for rebounds in the low post, getting 8 boards in 12 minutes.
"Nicaya came off the bench that first game when we were desperate for rebounds and really just did not let us lose that game," head coach Aaron Roussell said. "Nofi struggled that first game, but when she came back the next day the way she did against Trinity, I knew we had a real ballplayer."
Mojidi showed an entirely different side of herself in the team's second game against the Tigers, now ranked fifth in the nation. An All-State high-school sprinter, she showed whiplash-inducing bursts of speed in going 7-for-13 from the floor for a team-leading 18 points and 6 rebounds in 21 minutes.
In fact, Mojidi's biggest strength this year has probably been her ability to bounce back from bad games. Although she is still a raw talent, her quickness and strength have overshadowed her few novice mistakes. On offense, Mojidi has been the Maroons' third-leading scorer with 12.0 points in 22.5 minutes per game, often blowing by opposing forwards before taking her trademark two big, heavy steps and putting up a layup.
Those easy baskets inside are a large part of the reason she has shot 46.3 percent from the floor, second best on the team, despite having an inconsistent outside shot. Many of her layups have been a direct product of her steals, as Mojidi has pressured opposing point guards to the point where they almost refuse to handle the ball.
"Nofi has forced every team in this league to tweak their offense because of her," Roussell said. "It can be a real boost when you see another point guard basically tell somebody else to bring the ball up the floor because she wants no part of her. Nofi is so good in the open floor that, when she forces turnovers and gets the ball on the break, she can be very dangerous."
Rapiera "great kid with enormous heart," according to Roussellhas similarly boosted the team offensively because of her defense, particularly under the basket. After bringing down her second or third implausible rebound in a row, causing many in the crowd to ask, "How did she come down with that one?", she has often drawn the foul, creating a consistent second-chance scoring opportunity for the Maroons. Despite only playing 18.9 minutes per game and having no starts, Rapier has the second-most free-throw attempts on the team with 66.
Though Rapier stands only 5-foot-8, shorter than most of the league's post players, she is able to beat them against the boards due to her sense of timing and pure brute force. She demonstrated that determination best in an overtime win over then fifth-ranked Wash U, pulling down 11 rebounds and scoring 17 points. With Gutowski fouled out in overtime and the team desperately undersized, she pulled down a number of missed shots and made five of six from the line and two field goals to help stop the Bears.
"Nicaya has been a rebounding machine for us and plays bigger than she is," Schwanz said. "The day before we played Wash U, Nicaya decided to practice without her knee brace on, and she played out of her mind. So she decided not to wear her brace during the game, and she played awesome, specifically coming up huge for us in overtime."
Having played both forward and guardher high-school positionRapier's versatility has been a big reason Roussell has continued bringing her off the bench, hoping to give the team a shot in the arm when they struggle on the boards.
As important as the team's young talent has been this year, the Maroons credit their new, positive attitude as much as anything. Mojidi and Rapier have been a big part of the energy on the court, both because of their tough playing styles and personalities.
"They are both so much fun, and they both have that smile that can just energize a room," Roussell said. "They have done some great things already, but they both have such tremendous potential. They have been on the floor at some key times for us this season. I have told them that I put them in these positions because I believe in them."
"Our team has a never-ending source of energy that is contagious," Rapier added. "Whether we have a conference game or morning practice, we bring energy to the court."
At times that energy has been tough on both Mojidi and Rapier, who have gotten down on themselves after some ill-advised passes and traveling calls. Roussell has put them in tough situations fully understanding that "sometimes this means you have to live with some mistakes," but also knowing that they've been as important to the team as anybody.
"As time goes on they both need to get better at moving on from mistakes they make. I do appreciate, though, how much they want to do things right. The best thing about them is that they expect even more than I do."
After all, this year is just the first step. All of the team's starters return next season, and with a little more experience and quite possibly a third consecutive Rookie of the Year winner, Chicago could be the team to beat in the UAA.