Class of 2022 hopes to help Penn women’s hoops with graduation losses

Although missing out on a Ivy League championship three-peat, the Penn women’s team had another great year in 2017-2018. The Quakers (22-9 overall, 11-3 Ivy), which ended the season first in the Big Five, second in the Ancient Eight’s regular season and runner-up in the Ivy Tournament, finished with its fifth straight year of 20+ total wins and 11 or more league victories. While missing out on the NCAA Tournament, Penn beat Albany in the first round of the WNIT before losing 53-48 at St. John’s in the round of 32. The Red & Blue will enter the 2018-2019 season without 3/5th of its starting lineup, looking to reload as it attempts to get to the post season for the seventh straight year.

Penn had one of the top defenses in the nation, holding teams to 54.9 points a game with 35.4 percent shooting from the field and a 31.2 percent three point rate. The team averaged a conference best 5.8 blocks per game and 37.8 offensive rebounding percentage, while having the league’s second best defensive rebounding rate of 69.6 percent. The Quakers outscored its opponents by 10.6 points a game, but struggled with 38.3 percent shooting from the field (7th in the Ivy League) and 33.2 percent from three (4th in the IL). If Penn hopes to dethrone Princeton from the top spot, the team will need to maintain its traditional defensive intensity while improving its offensive efficiency.

The Quakers arguably lose more from its roster than any other team in the league.  Michelle Nwokedi, the 2016-2017 Player of the Year, 2014-2015 Rookie of the Year and three time first team All-Ivy member, averaged 33.3 minutes, 12.2 points, 8.7 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.3 blocks in a year where she changed her role from center to forward.  Point guard Anna Ross, who was chosen to the second team All-Ivy the last two years, leaves Penn as the program’s all-time (491) and single season (151 in ’17-’18) leader in assists.  In her senior season, she averaged 33.2 minutes and 8.0 points a game, while leading the league with a 2.1 assists-to-turnover ratio and a conference second-best 4.9 assists per game.  Lauren Whitlatch returned from a knee injury that sidelined her for the second half of the 2016-2017 season to average 23.2 minutes, 8.2 points, 2.7 rebounds and 1.0 assists over 31 games this year.  She was the team’s leading three point threat, hitting 75 deep shots (45 more than the next closest teammate) at a 33.9 percent rate.  Beth Brzozowski was a key contributor off the bench, playing in every game while averaging 11.5 minutes, 3.1 points, 1.2 rebounds and 1.0 assists per game.  In her junior year, she started 16 games in place of the injured Whitlatch. averaging 19.1 minutes, 5.0 points, 1.8 rebounds and 1.0 assists per contest.

For 2018-2019, Penn will be led by rising sophomore Eleah Parker, the reigning Ivy League Rookie of the Year and a member of the All-Ivy second team.  The 6′ 4″ center from Charlotte lived up to the preseason hype, starting all 31 games and averaging 11.5 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game.  She also led the Red & Blue in shooting at 47.3 percent.  Guard Ashley Russell is the other remaining starter from last year’s team.  The 5′ 10″ rising senior started 29 games with 24.3 minutes, 7.5 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game.  Rising senior Princess Aghayere had the most minutes off the bench last year and will look to produce more from the forward spot next season.  In ’17-’18, the 6′ 0″ forward had 13.8 minutes, 4.3 points and 4.1 rebounds per contest, while shooting a team second-best 41.0 percent from the field.

Coach Mike McLaughlin will welcome a strong class of five first year athletes to West Philly this fall.  Noelle Cahill is a 6′ 4″ center from the Denver suburbs, who averaged 6.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.2 assists and 0.9 blocks per game in a senior year in which she was chosen to the All-Continental League second team and honorable mention All-Colorado by Mile High Sports.  Kennedy Suttle from Holy Innocents’ Episcopal in Atlanta is a 6′ 0″ forward who put up over 1,000 points and rebounds in her career.  This past season, she was named first team All-Region and second team Class A (Private) All-State by the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Sereena Weledji is a 6′ 0″ guard from the Kansas City area, who is the third member of her family to play basketball for an Ivy League program.  Her sister Nelly played at Brown from 2011-2015 and Tia just complete four years with Princeton.  This spring, Sereena was named first team All-State by the Kansas Basketball Coaches Association for the third straight season on the strength of 13.3 points and 6.5 rebounds per game.  For her career, she totaled 1,162 points, 681 rebounds, 214 assists and three straight state Class 5A championships.  USA Today noted that she is a defensive stopper, while ESPN lists her as a three star recruit with a scout grade of 90.

Meg Hair, a 6′ 0″ guard from Syracuse, has been playing varsity ball for Jackson-Dewitt High School since eighth grade.  In each of the last three seasons, she has led her team to the Class A state title and been named the Class A Player of the Year by the New York Sportswriters Association.  For her career, she finished as Jackson-Dewitt’s all-time leading scorer with 1,783 points.  Mia Lakstigala is a 5′ 11″ guard from the suburbs of Chicago, who averaged 18.6 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.2 steals in her senior season.  For the last two years, she was named the DuPage Valley Conference and Naperville Sun Player of the Year.  Despite not starting until her sophomore year at Naperville Central, she ended up with 1,843 career points, second only to NCAA, Olympic and WNBA star Candace Parker.  After focusing on her three point shooting, facilitating and leadership skills this year, her high school coach Andy Nussbaum told Matt Le Cren of the Naperville Sun, “Mia’s got the whole package that reminds me of Parker.  She’s got all the tools to be very good at the college level”.