For the second year in a row, Ohio will begin its season with plenty of talent, monumental expectations and a point to prove after a disappointing end to its previous campaign.
Two season ago, the COVID-19 pandemic robbed Ohio of the opportunity to play in the Mid-American Conference Tournament semifinals. Last year, it lost in overtime to Central Michigan in the MAC Tournament semifinals.
This year, the Bobcats are looking to avenge those disappointments and win a MAC Championship for the first time since 2015. Key players return for Ohio coach Bob Boldon’s ninth season such as Cece Hooks, Erica Johnson and Gabby Burris.
With an arsenal of returning talent and a chip on its shoulder, Ohio’s expectations are sky-high. Here’s a breakdown of Ohio, from returning stars and the challenges it is expected to face, ahead of its season opener on Tuesday:
Ohio had big expectations going into the 2020-21 season, and while it did not meet all of them, there were plenty of reasons as to why last season wasn’t a disappointment.
The Bobcats’ season was regularly disrupted due to multiple players and coaches, including Boldon, missing games after testing positive for COVID-19. The Bobcats were also forced to postpone their final three games in February, which made it difficult to find a rhythm before the MAC Tournament. The Bobcats ultimately fell short in the tournament, and they suffered an overtime loss to Central Michigan in the semifinals.
Despite this, Ohio accepted a bid to the WNIT Tournament and picked up a win against Fordham in the consolation bracket before being knocked out by UMass. This marked the fourth time under Boldon that Ohio made the WNIT, but this season Ohio is aiming higher.
Losses and Returns
The Bobcats have only lost one player, Edecia Beck, who transferred to Wright State in July. Beck played in just two games in 2020-21, and scored nine points in those two games. Ohio adjusted to not having Beck on the court for much of last season, so her loss might not cause much issue.
On the other hand, Ohio is retaining plenty of talent.
Both Hooks and Burris elected to use their extra year of eligibility granted due to the COVID-19 pandemic to return for one more season in Athens.
Ohio has a roster loaded with experience, including six seniors who all provide the experience and skill necessary to lead on the court.
Hunter Rogan served a limited role for the Bobcats last season, appearing in nine games and never playing more than seven minutes. This is her fourth year with the program, however, and that experience will prove valuable in the locker room.
Kaylee Bambule saw her role grow continuously over the course of last season. At the beginning of the year, she rarely saw playtime but come February had locked down a starting spot and become a legitimate three-point threat.
Caitlyn Kroll is in her fourth season with Ohio after transferring from St. Francis and started in all but two games last season. Her ability to handle the ball will help take the load off Hooks and Johnson, and she rebounds well for a guard. Kroll also shot 31.9 percent from 3-point range last season and is one of Ohio’s most reliable shooters.
Experience is important, and Rogan, Bambule and Kroll have it in spades. However, the success of the Bobcats will revolve around the big three of Burris, Johnson and Hooks.
Burris is entering her fifth year with Ohio and her fourth as a starter. She has blossomed into a key contributor for Ohio despite often taking a backseat to Hooks and Johnson. She is a solid 3-point shooter and a good finisher around the rim, and she has become the team’s clear third option on offense.
Johnson is a redshirt senior who grappled with injury at the end of last season. However, she’s healthy once again and will arguably be the Bobcats’ most important player. She’s multi-faceted on offense and is often the player that the Bobcats look to in critical moments.
Johnson is dynamite beyond the arc and a good rebounder, but her most important asset is her passing ability. She is frequently able to find her teammates for good looks, which will be important for running Boldon’s offense.
On top of Johnson and Burris, Ohio can rest easy knowing its heavy hitter, Hooks, is back for another season.
In 2020-21, Hooks had just about the best individual season possible. She was named the MAC Player of the Year for the first time her career and the MAC Defensive Player of the Year for the third consecutive season. She was named to the All-MAC First Team and All-Defensive Team for the third year in a row and was an All-American Honorable Mention.
Hooks is a phenomenal two-way player and does everything a coach could want a player to do. Last season, she led the team in scoring and rebounding, averaging 25.1 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. She also averaged 3.8 steals and four assists per game. She even recorded the second triple-double in program history with 31 points, 11 assists and 10 steals against Miami in early March.
Hooks declared for the WNBA Draft in April, but opted out after realizing she wanted to work on aspects of her game like her 3-point shooting. Boldon said Hooks is confident in that department and will likely be shooting more this season.
In addition to its seniors, Ohio has four juniors with varying levels of experience. Two of the four will likely be major factors, and the other two present interesting alternatives.
Alexandra Antonova only played in nine games for the Bobcats last season, but she stands 6 feet 2 inches tall and provides valuable size off the bench. She’s dealt with some injury issues in her three years in Athens, but she regularly makes an appearance on the court when healthy.
Abby Garnett is another interesting option who could provide Ohio with much needed size. The forward appeared in 18 games last season and carved out a role as an off-the-bench physical presence. There is likely only one spot in the rotation for either her or Antonova. If last season is any indication, Garnett has made it her own.
Jasmine Hale was one of Ohio’s most-utilized bench players in 2020-21, and will likely fill a similar role this season. The Wisconsin transfer flashed some potential as a shooter last year, and might play an important role if she can continue to grow in her third year with the program.
The Bobcats’ most important junior is Peyton Guice, who started in 10 of their first 12 games before tearing her right ACL and meniscus against Western Michigan in January. When she returns from that injury, Guice will once again play a major role as a two-way guard who plays strong defense and can handle the ball well.
There may not be much of a chance for many of the underclassmen to see significant time on the court given the experience Ohio’s roster is loaded with. However, that doesn’t mean they will be sidelined entirely.
Kate Dennis, Kendall Hale and Yaya Felder all joined the program last December after forgoing their senior seasons in high school. Dennis and Hale played limited minutes for the Bobcats last season, but both saw increased play time as the season winded down. If the Bobcats are struck by the injury bug or any potential COVID-19 issues, Dennis and Hale are prime candidates to fill the gaps.
Felder and Ella Pope are the two underclassmen who aren’t likely to receive much playing time, but they will still have a role to play in practice and honing their abilities.
Madi Mace is easily Ohio’s most important underclassman. She played in all but one game last season and only improved as the year went on. She ended the season with a 32.5 shot percentage from beyond the arc. Whether she is starting or coming off the bench this season, Mace and her shooting ability will be vital for Ohio.
Ohio will start its season with likely the toughest opponent it will face all year. It’ll travel on Nov. 9 to face Notre Dame for a rematch following its 86-85 upset of the then-No.22 team in the nation last season. Ohio’s win over Notre Dame last November was just the second time in program history Ohio defeated a nationally-ranked opponent.
The Fighting Irish are a historical power in women’s basketball, but are unranked to begin the season and received eight votes in the AP Top 25 Poll.
After their season opener, the Bobcats face two more tough opponents when they travel to play Liberty on Nov. 13 and Cincinnati on Nov. 16. After that, their nonconference schedule lightens up a bit, but they do have to travel to Minnesota on Dec. 15 in one of their final games before the start of MAC play.
In the MAC, Ohio’s main challenge will come from Bowling Green and Buffalo. While Ohio was selected to win the regular season in the MAC Preseason Coaches’ Poll, it received only four first-place votes while Buffalo and Bowling Green each received three. Buffalo was also selected to win the MAC Tournament.
Keys to a Successful Season
The area in which Ohio struggled most last season was on defense. It was hard for the team to get in sync on both ends due to a lack of practice time. But while talent helped carry Ohio’s offense, defense is more about team cohesion, something Ohio lacked.
“We were really bad defensively,” Boldon said. “When we played last year, we didn’t look as if we practiced.”
Ohio allowed 100 points in its overtime loss to Central Michigan in the MAC Tournament semifinals, so preventing scoring is crucial. That improvement is likely, however, given that Ohio has had much more time to practice together before this season. If defensive issues were simply due to lack of cohesion and practice as Boldon believes, they should easily sort themselves out.
One other key, albeit a specific one, is whether or not Hooks can stay out of foul trouble. She plays an aggressive style of defense, which led to three-straight MAC Defensive Player of the Year awards, but also created issues with fouling.
The biggest moment of the loss to the Chippewas was when Hooks fouled out near the end of regulation and the Bobcats were unable to find a rhythm in overtime. For the Bobcats to be at their best, they need Hooks on the floor. When she is, they can beat anyone.
There is plenty of buzz around the Bobcats ahead of their season opener, and much of it is warranted. They have talent, experience, a well-decorated coach and plenty of motivation. All the factors that often lead to a successful team are present, and the Bobcats have built a strong case to win both the regular season and the MAC Tournament.
They have the depth to get through a long regular season and the star power to win close contests. Both Boldon and the roster have been a part of numerous deep runs in the postseason, so the moment will never be too big.
Above all, Hooks is the best player in the MAC and Johnson makes a strong case to be the second. The pair have the skill to carry Ohio to its first MAC Tournament title since 2015, and this might be the year it finally happens.