From the opponent’s standpoint, planning to play the Elon University women’s basketball team has become easier over the last few years.
It was expected that Elon’s offense would feature a steady diet of Ali Ford, Kelsey Harris or Zora Stephenson, and not much else.
Enter true freshmen Shay Burnett and Malaya Johnson and sophomore transfer Essence Baucom, and gone are the days of an Elon team with limited options.
“One of the things as coaches we’re most excited about is the depth,” said Charlotte Smith, who’s entering her fourth year as head coach of the Phoenix. “Last year we had gotten down to seven or eight players, so it’s just really good and refreshing to be able to go 12 players deep.”
Elon returns most of its main contributors from last year’s team. Stephenson, a senior, who averaged 10.1 points per game and shot 40 percent from 3-point range, will be called upon to put up similar numbers this season as the go-to shooting option.
Also returning are sophomores Lauren Brown and Jenifer Rhodes. Both players enjoyed breakout freshman campaigns, with Rhodes being named Southern Conference Freshman of the Year.
The biggest omission from last year’s squad is Kelsey Harris, who graduated. The four-year starting point guard led the team in points, steals and assists last year.
Though an adjustment period is to be expected after losing a player like Harris, Smith liked what she saw from the new players in Elon’s exhibition game against Catawba College Nov. 2.
“I’m proud of the way that we played offensively,” she said. “I thought we did some really, really good things offensively [and] got some great contributions from the bench. We had 52 points from the bench. [Burnett] and [Johnson], two freshmen, were huge factors in the bench contribution.”
Burnett led the way with 21 points, shooting an efficient 8 of 9 from the field. Johnson added 14 points, eight rebounds and three blocks, while Baucom, a transfer from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, tallied six assists and four steals.
For Baucom, it was refreshing to finally get back out on the court after having to sit out a season in accordance with NCAA transfer rules. Coming from a decidedly higher level of basketball in Conference USA, Baucom said playing at that level for a year was something that will aid in her adjustment to Elon and the Colonial Athletic Association.
“It’s just exciting to be under a new coaching staff and a new system and being able to just get back on the court after being out for a year,” she said. “I would definitely say [playing at UAB] helped me mentally more than anything, just being able to adjust to the pace of the game, the physicality of the different levels.”
It hasn’t taken long for Baucom and other newcomers to become acclimated to their new teammates and a new system. Both Baucom and Burnett described strong relationships they have built with their fellow teammates, most notably Stephenson and seniors Sam Coffer and Shannen Cochraham.
“Those three have done a great job of leading this team and making sure that all of us stay grounded and make sure that we’re all headed down the right path so this team can be successful,” Baucom said. “We have a really good senior class as far as leading us, and as long as we follow their lead, we should be in good hands.”
Burnett, Johnson and Baucom will be a key part of Elon implementing its mantra for the season, “Fight for 40.”
“It means that we’re going all out for 40 minutes,” Smith said. “We’re being relentless for 40 minutes, trying to create havoc, create chaos and making our opponents uncomfortable.”
Baucom echoed Smith’s comments, adding that they want to be known for their effort on the court.
“Our goal is to make sure that we’re going all out and all in for the entire game from start to finish,” she said. “We want to make sure we play with a certain level of intensity and competitiveness so that we can put ourselves in the best position for success.”
No matter the mantra for the team, there is one word that has become synonymous with Elon women’s basketball leading up to opening night Nov. 14 against Anderson University: depth.
“That’s going to make us one of the harder teams to defend in this league because we have so much that we can work with,” Baucom said. “When there’s a substitution, you don’t really lose much because we’re so deep, which is definitely going to help us get to where we’re trying to go this year.”