When Stony Brook Women’s Basketball Head Coach Caroline McCombs first arrived at the university in 2014, she was clear about her expectations for the team.
“We have a winner’s mentality,” McCombs said prior to her first season. “Our players want to win.”
Four years later, McCombs is not quite as assertive when it comes to her team’s immediate future. Instead, she is focusing on the day-by-day growth of her young roster and the improvements she sees as they experience a Division I program for the first time.
“We don’t have goals,” McCombs said after a recent Tuesday practice. “We just talk about how we’re going to get better every single day.”
The focus on incremental measures of success makes sense for a program trying to regain a competitive reputation. After winning 17 games in each of her first two seasons, her team scratched out a 12-18 overall record last season. This year, Stony Brook has five true freshmen and two redshirt-freshmen on the roster. And the addition of two junior college transfers means the team will have only five athletes who have seen the court for the Seawolves prior to this season.
“We have a lot of rookies this year,” McCombs said. “I think [a measure of success is to] just continuing to take coaching, to get better every day, to learn through practices and games… just competing at the highest level.”
Developing players will be key for McCombs, whose team was ranked eighth out of nine teams in the America East Preseason Coaches’ Poll. Stony Brook will be without five of its top six scorers and rebounders from last season, forcing McCombs to rely on unproven talent. However, she is not deterred.
“They’ve been competing all pre-season for those positions and roles are starting to be defined now and we’re just continuing to be better,” McCombs said. “We’re really trying to develop our players. We want to be a program of player development.”
Since Stony Brook elevated the women’s basketball program to Division I status in 1999, sustained success has been hard to come by. Women’s Basketball won 24 games the year before McCombs was hired, but that was only two years removed from a four-win season in 2011-12. Three years is too small a sample size to judge the strength of a program, but McCombs is not a bad bet if Stony Brook is looking to produce consistent success.
McCombs has proven herself to be a successful recruiter of both on-court and off-court talent. She has added two former Division I directors of recruitment to her coaching staff in the last year, including Audrey Cunningham, who signed on after two years with perennial national championship contender Maryland. McCombs is also particularly adept at recruiting junior college talent. For this year’s team, she added junior forward Cheyenne Clark, the National Junior College Athletic Association’s top rebounder in 2016-17, and junior guard Shania Johnson, who dropped 21.7 points per game last season for Monroe College.
McCombs now has 47 wins as head coach with the victory over Manhattan in the season opener on Saturday, and has won the second-most games among Stony Brook women’s basketball coaches in the Division I era and fourth all-time. Before she arrived on Long Island, McCombs was an assistant coach for Auburn, Pittsburgh and Valparaiso – all programs that produce successful teams annually, with NCAA tournament and National Invitation Tournament selections to show for it.
A few years developing a foundation for a winning program might be the cost if McCombs is to successfully introduce a winning culture to the program. McCombs seems to be aware of this, and wants her team to slow down and enjoy the growth they will experience this season.
“You have to enjoy the process,” McCombs said. “Just coming in everyday and seeing them go through the highs and lows of a day of a basketball season. It’s exciting to see where they came in at and just, even in the last month, two months, how they’ve gotten better, how they’ve grown.”