Q&A: Coach Andrea Gorski and Bradley women's basketball team aim to build on Valley title run
College basketball’s regular season tips off next week, and the Bradley University women's team is looking to build on an unexpected and unprecedented conference championship run.
In a season overshadowed by COVID-19, last year's Braves finished with a 17-12 record – but reeled off a late five-game winning streak to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history.
Fans got their first look at Coach Andrea Gorski's defending Missouri Valley Conference Tournament champions Thursday night in a 101-75 exhibition win over McKendree at Carver Arena.
The Braves welcome Wright State to Renaissance Coliseum on Tuesday to tip off the regular season. Before the game, Bradley will celebrate its 2020-21 season with a ring presentation and championship banner-raising ceremony.
Coach Gorski recently spoke to WCBU reporter Joe Deacon about the ups and downs of last season and what to expect this year. The conversation and transcript have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Joe Deacon: How have practices and preparation for the new season been going so far?
Gorski: Official practice started at the end of September, and I think week by week, we've seen a lot of progress individually and just trying to jell together with eight new players. So, how quickly we can get everyone playing as one (unit) has been our main focus here in the first month of practice. I couldn't be happier with where we're at. I think it's now it's just, we really need to play someone else; the team’s really looking forward to us playing someone else.
Tell me about last year. Obviously, it was pretty remarkable with the first Missouri Valley Conference tournament title and the first NCAA appearance in program history. What was that whole experience like, and what will you remember most from it?
Gorski: I think, obviously, with COVID, one of the most trying seasons I've ever been involved with. Our theme the whole season was “last man standing,” because you really had to persevere to get through a season like that. Just for our team to take it one week at a time and just to be the last team standing in the Missouri Valley Tournament was remarkable; it's a feeling that I'd love to duplicate. I know our returners would love to duplicate that feeling. It really was the most challenging but most rewarding season of my career.
Has that level of success raised expectations and set a high bar for this season and years to come?
Gorski: Absolutely. Our players that returned from that championship team, just their approach in the offseason is a little more feisty, a little more “get after it” mentality, more time in the gym on their own. Because that's what it takes. Everyone's going to get their regular practice hours in – it's that little bit extra, and that little bit of extra has been very consistent since the championship run. I think with eight new players, they've been a great example of how do you win a championship, and what's the process you go through every day. Because you don't just win a championship on championship game day; you win it throughout the year. That's probably what the biggest difference is, I think. When you get a little taste of it, you just really can't wait to have a second helping.
Especially with, as you said, the eight new players, how important is it to have Gabi Haack back for one more season? What has she meant to this Braves program for the last several years?
Gorski: The most consistent player I've ever coached. Forty points away from being the (program’s) all-time leading scorer. She would have done that easily last year, but between her junior year ending with no Missouri Valley Tournament and last year being a shortened nonconference season, she would’ve easily gotten that as a senior. But I'm glad that she's back. The fans are going to be obviously ecstatic to watch her play again.
But just showing (teammates) the right way to do things. Since she stepped foot on campus as a freshman, she does things the right way. She puts the time in necessary to prepare for practice, prepare for games. The way she eats, how she works out in the weight room – she's been a professional, and you usually just don't see that for four years. Usually by the time they're juniors and seniors, they kind of flip a switch and they start preparing differently. She came in preparing the right way from the get-go, and obviously it's paid off for her and it's paid off for our program.
Who are some of the other key players that are going to have big roles on the team this year, or the newcomers that the fans should keep their eyes on?
Gorski: Returning, obviously Tatum Koenig. She's been our starting point guard since midway through her freshman year, and to have a senior at that position and a senior that's won a championship along with Gabi, I feel like our back court is very strong. Then we have Isis Fitch, who … she hasn't missed a day of extra workouts. She is constantly in the gym, and she's really – I think the fans are going to be really impressed with how she's improved her game from her freshman season. Tete Danso, she played some big minutes for us last year as a freshman (and) she's bringing a lot back. Chloe Rice is just a steady senior leader.
But for the new kids, I think fans are really going to enjoy watching Sierra Morrow play. A junior college transfer, she's very dynamic. All of our post players, I feel like Daija Powell, Callie Ziebell, Ronnie (Veronika) Roberts – we have the best post game that we've had since I've been here. We can run, every couple minutes, a couple new posts out there and compete. I think Sasha Koenig, Tatum’s sister – they're going to think they're seeing double out there – she's a feisty guard. Then Caroline Waite, she's a little one, 5-foot-3, but a dynamic scorer and she's going to contribute right away.
As we mentioned, you open the regular season on Tuesday at home against Wright State. What do you know about the Raiders and what are the keys to that game?
Gorski: Shoot, you know, no one knows anything. They have a new coach, new players. They have three or four key players from when we played them last year; we played them in the nonconference season early (winning 66-61 on the road). But with the new coach, you don't know what they're going to run. They don't have any exhibition games, because they're all closed scrimmages. So that's going to be a game where we have to be ready for anything. We really just need to play Bradley basketball and focus on what we're doing, because you could guess what they're going to run but you don't want to get caught up in that. But they're going to be ready to go and I know we can't wait to get out in front of Renaissance Coliseum with our fans. It's going to be a special day.
How important is it to get off to a good start then?
Gorski: Oh, sure, it's huge. Our nonconference season, the schedule is the toughest it's ever been since I've been here and maybe in the history of Bradley women’s basketball. But it will get us ready for the strongest Missouri Valley schedule, I think – I've been involved with the Missouri Valley as a player, as an assistant coach at (Southern Illinois), and now, going on my sixth year as a Bradley coach – this will be the best Missouri Valley Conference top to bottom it's ever been. We had five teams make the postseason last year; I wouldn't be surprised if we duplicate that again this year or even surpass it. So this schedule will get us ready; we will be battle-tested when we tip off against Illinois State on New Year's Day.
Who are some of these key matchups you're going to have in nonconference?
Gorski: I mean, you look – we’ve got two Big Ten teams: we’re playing here at Bradley against Wisconsin on Nov. 19, and the day after Thanksgiving, we'll be back in Gabi's hometown in Minnesota and playing the University of Minnesota. We have South Dakota on the road; South Dakota is a Top 25 team. We've got North Dakota State on that trip, that's going to be a tough one as well. We're going down and playing in the Tulane tournament; Tulane is one of the top teams in their conference. So, I mean, there's really not a lot of room for error in our nonconference schedule, so Tuesday's game against Wright State is as big as they come because we've got to get off to a great start.
What are your realistic expectations then for this season? What is the outlook for playing in the Valley?
Gorski: We want to win another championship. I think, again, with the nonconference schedule we're going to be the most prepared. I also think we're going to be one of the teams that's going to – in terms of chances of improving from September through March – I think we're young, but we're deep, and I think you're going to see a team that's going to get better and better as months go by. It’s the coach's job to make sure that we're peaking at the right time, and I just really like this group. It’s going to be a fun team to watch, for sure.