LINCOLN — New Nebraska women’s basketball coach Amy Williams likes mottoes. She had several in Wednesday’s season-opening press conference.
On her expectations for players: “If you want to have a good team, be a great teammate.”
On Nebraska’s daunting nonconference schedule, which includes a home game against defending national champion Connecticut: “Anything that’s great that’s ever accomplished comes with a big challenge and outstanding opportunity.”
Finally: “Get comfortable being uncomfortable.”
That was Williams’ offseason motto for the Husker women. In order to improve team bonding, Williams and her assistant coaches — whom she took whole cloth from her previous job at South Dakota — put players in workouts they didn’t expect, just to see how they’d handle it. That included swims in the Devaney Center pool.
“I can’t tell you the last time I swam to work out,” senior center Allie Havers said. “We did laps, we did running in the pool, we did soccer workouts. That was a struggle, but it was awesome because she didn’t just tell us to do it, she told us why. There’s always a reason behind everything she does.”
Williams hinted that she wanted to see the team grow closer, too. As preseason practice started this week, Williams would like her team to smile more, too.
“Our team sometimes takes itself way too serious,” Williams said. “So we’re trying to get them to lighten up a little bit and have fun.”
Havers, the team’s most outgoing personality — and resident lip sync battle champion — likes Williams’ approach.
“She’s all about culture,” Havers said. “She’s all about chemistry. If there’s a problem, we deal with it now. It’s just a huge family atmosphere. I’ve never been on a team where you feel so close.”
Williams is taking over for Connie Yori, who took the Huskers to seven NCAA tournaments but resigned in April amid an athletic department investigation into her treatment of players — some of whom, according to sources, objected to Yori’s terse coaching style.
NU’s best guard, Natalie Romeo, wasn’t one of the objectors. The second-team All-Big Ten pick transferred after Yori’s resignation and said the “immaturity” of teammates was the source of last season’s struggles and undermined Yori’s leadership. Romeo transferred to Washington, and the two top recruits for the 2016 class, point guards Kathleen Doyle and MiCole Cayton, received scholarship releases and chose to play Iowa and California, respectively.
When Williams talks about players having the freedom to “pump your fist and celebrate your successes out here on the court,” is she underlining the contrast to Yori? Does she see the difference in approaches?
“I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about that or anything other than what we feel like has worked for our team and our program in the past,” Williams said, “which has been focusing on relationships and being able to lock in on having those healthy, trusting relationships.”
Williams said it’s important that Havers, one of two seniors, was on board.
“Her embracing our staff is critical in moving forward,” Williams said.
Havers said the embrace is mutual.
“There’s a lot of positive energy, for sure,” Havers said. “There’s a good relationship — you can tell just by walking around the gym — between the players and the coaches. You want to be there, which is awesome.”
» Sophomore forward Rachel Blackburn will miss this season because of surgery for chronic knee pain. Blackburn played in 25 games last season, starting 10, while averaging 4.2 points and 4.8 rebounds. Teammates and coaches praised Blackburn for her leadership and grit.
“That’s a tough thing to replace,” Williams said.
Before she has surgery on Oct. 13, Blackburn will continue practicing.
“It shows you a little about her toughness,” Williams said. “What we’ve seen every day in practice, I’m like ‘Are you sure?’ because she really brings some things to the table. But it’s definitely something we’re supporting her through.”
In Blackburn’s absence, freshman Grace Mitchell from Wellington, Kansas, is open to moving from a wing spot to the frontcourt. Though 6-foot-2, Mitchell was best known in high school as a 3-point shooter.
» Nebraska will have a “committee” of point guards this season, Williams said, including Esther Ramacieri, Emily Wood, Rylie Cascio Jensen and Hannah Whitish.
» Leadership will be shared among many players, Williams said, including forward Jessica Shepard, who was Big Ten freshman of the year and first-team All-Big Ten. Some of NU’s hardest-working players, Williams said, are Maddie Simon, Wood and Mitchell.
» Two summer transfers, Bria Stallworth and Janay Morton, can’t play this season. Both are guards who may play the point next season.
“For us, it would be an advantage to have some players — even if they couldn’t play — here learning our system,” Williams said. Stallworth averaged 13.1 points per game as a freshman at Massachusetts last season. Morton averaged 13.5 points as a junior for Eastern Michigan.
» Senior post player Allie Havers said NU’s defense will involve less help from other defenders and require more one-on-one defense on the perimeter.