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Wednesday, Jul 30, 2014

Upstart St. Leo women hunger for postseason


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SAINT LEO — The Saint Leo University women’s basketball team is on a mission to get as many wins as possible this year thanks, in part, to a season-ending loss.

In 2013, the Lions (10-1) reached the Sunshine State Conference (SSC) tournament final for the first time in the program’s 37-year history before falling to Rollins College. The loss ended their season, but senior forward Chelsea Connelly said that experience helped step up their game.

“It showed us the level we need to play at if we’re going to make the NCAA Tournament,” Connelly said.

To get to that level, third-year Saint Leo coach Nikki Jessee installed an even more intense strength and conditioning program.

“When I first got here, there was basically no conditioning and strength program, and we’ve stepped that up every year to something we’re really serious about,” Jessee said.

The new regimen allows the Lions to use a high-tempo, transition offense to wear out the opposition.

“It’s an offense that I think fits us really well, but to do it we needed to focus on being in really good shape from the first day of practice, and everyone bought in, worked hard during the offseason and came in ready to go,” said senior guard Teresa Manigrasso, who leads Saint Leo with 17 points a game.

Jessee said they’ve also focused on keeping the players in the right mental state.

“We try to keep them on edge all the time and to keep a chip on their shoulder,” Jessee said. “You can’t relax. If you relax, you can’t achieve as much as you possibly can.”

Connelly said that combination is a big reason why they’re 10-1 as of Friday.

“Physically, we’re so much more in shape this year versus freshman year, and mentally, coach has prepared us. We think as a winning team, and if you think as a winning team you’re going to win,” said Connelly, who leads the Lions with 8.3 rpg.

Other additions, ChaChi Guzman, Ashlin Gross and Melissa Jackson, who all transferred in last winter, have contributed to the Lions success.

“They couldn’t play last season, but when they started practicing with us we started winning a lot more because we were going against better talent and competition every day,” Jessee said.

Jessee said the addition of Guzman has “made the biggest difference this season because we really didn’t have a point guard last year.”

Guzman, a sophomore averaging 5.6 assists and 9.3 points, said the transition has been easy, thanks to her teammates.

“It’s not very hard to feel comfortable when you’re getting assists left and right because they’re always scoring,” Guzman said.

The new mental and physical standards, key additions and a 10-1 start have the Lions thinking about of earning the program’s first NCAA Division II Tournament berth.

“That’s what makes us focus,” said senior forward Chelsea Williams, who averages 15.9 points and 6.9 rebounds. “Wins are great, but we want to be playing in that tournament.”

It’s that thought keeping the players hungry.

“We have to continue to win games or this start doesn’t really matter,” Connelly added.

Tribune correspondent Kyle LoJacono can be reached at kylelojacono@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @Kyle_LoJacono.

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