Jillian Schmelzer, Kena Souza and Aaliyah WilsonFalcone are sophomores on the Winthrop basketball team. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
Winthrop found itself in a close game with Oak Hill in last year’s season opener.
For the Ramblers, only two seasons removed from not even having a varsity girls’ basketball team, close games were a foreign experience.
In swooped Aaliyah WilsonFalcone, who forced a turnover in the waning seconds of regulation and turned it into the game-tying basket that forced overtime.
With three seconds left in overtime, the Ramblers set up a play for Jillian Schmelzer, who scored to win the game.
WilsonFalcone and Schmelzer were only freshmen. As was Kena Souza, Winthrop’s top scorer last season.
“They kind of had an immediate impact from the second they stepped on the court. It really was the first game they ever played,” Ramblers coach Joe Burnham said.
After going 0-18 in 2013-14, Winthrop didn’t have a varsity team the next year and instead spent a year playing JV. Back at varsity in 2015-16, they finished 3-15. Then, last season, they went 11-8 and earned a postseason berth.
That rebuild was led by a group of seniors — Shie Smith, Adlin Chaparin, Matti Rice and Bri McClure — who graduated this past spring.
“It was really awesome to play one year with them,” Schmelzer said. “I learned a lot. They had a lot of good leadership skills, and they helped us out a lot and had us just feel comfortable and taught us what it’s like to be a good high school player and what it’s like to be a good teammate and work together.”
But on the court last year, WilsonFalcone, Schmelzer and Souza played as big of roles as anybody on the team.
Souza was the team’s leading scorer (152 points, 8.9 per game) and made 30 3-pointers (only Monmouth’s Tia Day made more in the MVC), WilsonFalcone made 43 steals and Schmelzer was the starting point guard.
“Each one kind of scores in a different way, which is great for us,” Burnham said. “Jillian’s more of a slash-and-drive player; and Aaliyah, with her defense scores more points off of turnovers than I think just about anybody in the MVC; and Kena is sort of our long-range, dead-eye shooter.”
Schmelzer started at point guard in that first-game win over Oak Hill. Souza and WilsonFalcone were at that point swing players splitting their time between the varsity and JV team.
The freshmen soon became key players for the Ramblers. Schmelzer continued to start and WilsonFalcone and Souza were the first players off the bench.
“We just knew that we had expectations that we needed to help our team out,” Schmelzer said. “We got used to the competition and coming into those games and having to bring our best game to help our team out, because we weren’t used to that in middle school, so it was kind of a big leap.”
The three sophomores’ quicker-than-expected rise was an unexpected boost to the Ramblers, and might have even hastened the program’s return to the postseason, where Winthrop fell to Gould in the Class C preliminaries.
Winthrop still has strong upper classmen, but the three sophomores’ roles will be even larger and more important than last season.
“This year, between those three girls, they’re kind of our offense,” Burnham said. “I mean, they’re going to do a majority of the scoring, they’re going to do a majority of the ball-handling.”
The Ramblers have altered that offense to better fit their personnel — not just Souza, WilsonFalcone and Schmelzer, but the entire squad.
“We’re really short in size, but we’re a really athletic team, like we’re really quick and we just get up and down the court really quickly,” Souza said. “We’re just fast.”
The Ramblers will ramp up the tempo and will press as much as they can in an effort to force turnovers that lead to easy points. In the halfcourt, they’ll waste no time creating shot opportunities.
“We’re just trying to create as many shot opportunities for the girls as we can,” Burnham said. “We’ve kind of always said a bad shot’s better than a good turnover, so we let it fly quite often.”
As Souza said, the Ramblers aren’t tall. Because of that, Burnham and the players say they must improve their rebounding.
Their defense also must be better.
“I think that we’ve always had good offensive movements,” WilsonFalcone said, “and we can get better at that, but I think that since I’ve been here we’ve gotten better at our defense and being aware of the court.”
Also altered have been the expectations. As good as last year was, the Ramblers expect to be even better and to go farther this season.
“I think we’re going to be pretty good,” WilsonFalcone said. “We’re getting to the point where it’s not just, ‘OK, we want to do good.’ I think we’re getting to the point where it’s like, ‘OK, I want to win, I want to do great.’”
Expectations also are rising outside of the program. Burnham said that there have been a lot more opposing coaches scouting the Ramblers during the offseason.
It might be a bit of an adjustment being a team that opponents put serious time into preparing for.
“We’d always been sort of the afterthought and no expectations and things like that,” Burnham said. “How is it going to be now that we’re not going to surprise anybody anymore? People kind of understand that we’re not there yet but we’re kind of on the upswing.”
Burnham said the fate of this season won’t rest solely on Schmelzer, Souza and WilsonFalcone.
Another sophomore, Natalie Frost, might be the team’s most improved player and was one of its top scorers during the preseason. Souza is looking forward to seeing how Kathryn Ross plays in her return from an injury. And Layne Audet and Kate Perkins are starters or the first ones off the bench.
The Ramblers are a group of athletes who excel in other sports in fall and spring, but come together for basketball. Souza said basketball is the favorite of she, WilsonFalcone and Schmelzer.
“I definitely love playing with them both, especially them, because we just have a lot of the same skills and we have been playing together for so long, we just work well together,” Souza said.