Wisconsin women's basketball coach Lisa Stone certainly faces challenges as she enters the season. She's the new leader of a team coming off a difficult and draining season. She leads a few upperclassmen with a large supporting class of sophomores who must adjust to a new system only a year after learning a different one. And she's expected to live up to high standards set by the Big Ten and the NCAA as a whole. But here's the thing: she's ready.
Stone brings to Wisconsin an energetic personality, a determined spirit and a wealth of talent. She has 13 20-win seasons, a 375-118 collegiate record in 18 years of coaching and a new coaching staff. She's motivated and driven, evident in the three-and-a-half hour practices she runs. And it's exactly what the team needs.
"When coach Stone came in, we were coming off an extremely frustrating year, so if anyone's confidence had been shaken, I really think she kind of sparked this team," senior center Lello Gebisa said.
How has she sparked the team? First of all, by running up-tempo, energetic practices, keeping the women on their feet.
"Practice has been great," Gebisa said. "We work really hard every day but it feels good and at the end of every practice, we feel like we're getting better and that's a great feeling, to go in there and spend hours practicing and improving."
For Stone, this improvement is vital in having a successful season but she has support from her team and her staff.
"Obviously, we have some work to do, and it starts with daily improvement," Stone said. "I have a group of women that are committed to myself and to my staff and they want to do what I want to do. … I'm very, very fortunate and very blessed that I have people believing in the same thing I do."
"Stephanie Rich looks awesome," Stone said. "She is as fit and as well conditioned as she's ever been, she shoots the ball well, she's been outstanding on defense. Stephanie Rich leads by example. She's a terrific player, prolific scorer, can score, catch and shoot off the dribble, she can play a big guard if you wish and she can play point guard."
Stone has the support of assistant coaches to help direct the team, particularly assistant coach and close friend Donna Freitag.
"Donna and I grew up on the same street," Stone said. "She's a year older than I am. We played high school ball together, she coached with me at Drake and now we're here. Donna and I are like a "Type A" and a "Type B" personality and that's great because she brings to the team something I don't have and I bring something to the team that she doesn't have and that combination is outstanding. Donna's experience, her familiarity with the Big Ten—she was at Wisconsin nine years ago (as an assistant coach)—is instrumental to our success."
Although Stone is eager to start the season, she faces another challenge in her position as a new coach, although she's certainly among the majority in the Big Ten. Of the 11 head coaches, seven, including Stone, have been there for three years or fewer. Such rapid coaching changes can hurt the conference in recruiting, as some students will commit to schools knowing exactly how the coach works. Pat Summit, who is entering her 30th year at Tennessee, is an institution, a legend. Cheryl Burnett, a first-year coach at Michigan, is not. High school players looking at schools want a coach they know will stick around. In the Big Ten, this has not been the case in recent years. With the exception of Penn State coach Rene Portland, who has coached the Lady Lions for 23 years, no coach has maintained his or her coaching job at a Big Ten school for more than 10 years. Purdue head coach Kristy Curry has been with the team for four years and is one of the most seasoned coaches in the Big Ten.
"It's interesting because it seems like that I was the new face and now, all of a sudden, I'm one of the oldest and it's kind of scary because it's in such a short time," Curry said. "I think that a lot of (coaching changes) comes from the pressure to win and be successful. … There's so many more things I think that coaches should be judged on than wins and losses but that's kind of the way the business side of things come into play and you can only control what you can control."
With regards to her tenure at Wisconsin, Stone faces high expectations coming from every direction: the Big Ten, the university and the team she coaches, and sometimes it's not just about basketball.
"Expectations are extremely high and it does become a business, but yet I think that it's not a business to me, it's my kids and making sure they leave Purdue as better people. I know that's probably her goal at Wisconsin," Curry said.