Head coach Caroline McCombs during a Stony Brook Women’s basketball practice. She is already the winningest coach in team history at 89 victories, McCombs needs 11 more to crack 100. SARA RUBERG/THE STATESMAN

Coming off their best season record-wise in head coach Caroline McCombs’ five-year tenure, the Stony Brook women’s basketball team is looking to get over the hump, win the program’s first ever America East Championship and earn a spot in the NCAA’s Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament.

A sour taste was left in the Seawolves’ mouth last season after their America East semifinal playoff loss against the Hartford Hawks. Now, the reloaded Seawolves are on the hunt for one thing: redemption.

“As a team, obviously we want to improve. We want that ring. We want that championship. We want to go all the way,” junior forward McKenzie Bushee said.

The Seawolves are led by numerous upperclassmen including junior guard/forward Hailey Zeise, junior forward India Pagan and redshirt-junior forward Oksana Gouchie-Provencher. Stony Brook graduated two of their most productive on court players in school history, guards Shania “Shorty” Johnson and Jerell Matthews, and have replaced them with transfers Kaela “KK” Hilaire and Victoria Johnson.

Hilaire came to Stony Brook as a graduate transfer following three years at Seton Hall. “I actually committed to Albany first, to Abe (Katie Abrahamson-Henderson, now head coach at UCF) and when she switched, I de-committed. Seton Hall swooped in. But Albany was good, winning five championships in a row and I wanted to be a part of that.” 

Hilaire enjoyed success with the Pirates, including being a unanimous Big East All-Freshman Team selection in 2016-17. During her freshman season, Hilaire set Seton Hall’s freshman record with 125 assists in a single season, and also led all conference rookies in scoring, assists and steals. 

Johnson was named to the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) First Team All-American this season, averaging 21.6 points per game. Her 21.6 points ranked 9th nationally in the NJCAA and while her 83.9% free throw percentage was 13th. In her freshman year, Johnson was honored as a Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) All-American and First Team All-Region 23, while finishing 2nd in the NJCAA, scoring 22.6 points per game. 

“We’ve tried to build a culture where it doesn’t matter who comes in or who goes out,” Zeise said when asked how the newcomers will fit into the team. “It remains the same we call people up when they come in. We want to have the standard set, and the newcomers learned from it.”

Zeise started all but one of the 31 games she appeared in last season, averaging 4.4 points and 4.0 rebounds per game. Her 2018-19 season was an improvement from her previous season total of 1.2 points and 1.2 rebounds per game and this season she has continued her upward trend. Through the first four games of the 19-20 season, Zeise is averaging 4.3 points and 4.3 rebounds.

This season is a special one for Zeise. Back in April, the Seawolves in collaboration with Team IMPACT signed Amelia Garcia. Team IMPACT is a national nonprofit that connects children facing serious and chronic illnesses with local college athletic teams, forming life-long bonds and life-changing outcomes. Garcia is currently battling type 1 diabetes, just so happens to be a diehard Seawolves fan. Zeise made a promise to Garcia: “I will dye my hair blue all season long in solidarity with Amelia,” 

While Zeise has been seeing improvement each of the past two seasons, Pagan took a significant step forward last season, averaging 12.1 points per game, which was the 3rd highest on the team.

Over the summer, Pagan was the youngest member of the Puerto Rican team that played in the 2019 Pan American (Pan Am) Games in Lima, Peru. Pagan and her teammates ended up finishing 3rd in the tournament — good enough to take home a shiny bronze medal. Following her success at the Pan Am games, Pagan spent 9 days in China competing in the Four Nations Tournament, again representing Puerto Rico.

Stony Brook University profiled Pagan back in September; in the profile she discussed how playing for Puerto Rico has and will help her during her time as a Seawolf. “Freshman year I wasn’t sure how everything was going to play out or how I was going to adjust to the college world,” Pagan said. “My confidence shot up after playing for the national team the summer before my sophomore year. And now coming into my junior year after playing in the Pan Am Games as the youngest on the team, I’m embracing the big role I have on my SBU team.”

Through the first four games, the starting five has not changed. Zeise, Pagan and Hilaire have been joined by graduate forward Cheyenne Clark and sophomore guard Anastasia Warren. Warren, the lone underclassman in the starting 5, spent the entire 18-19 season playing behind “Shorty” and studying her every move. This has helped Warren become an integral part of the team.

Clark missed all of last season due to personal matters, but has shown so far this season that no rust collected during the down time. In only four games, Clark already has one double-double, while averaging nine points and 8.8 rebounds.

Moving forward after graduating one of the greatest players in program history is never easy. “Shorty” left Stony Brook holding program records in single-season assists with 228, as well as career three pointers with 191 and single-season three’s with 96. Hilaire was brought in not to replace “Shorty” and do exactly what she did on the court, but to help the program move forward.

“What she (“Shorty”) did, I have big shoes to fill, I actually have tiny feet, but I obviously want to do everything she did, and bring Stony Brook an America East championship,” Hilaire said.

When asked why she chose to transfer to Stony Brook even though she had offers from Rutgers and Temple, Hilaire pointed out something numerous other players said. Players do not consider McCombs just a head coach; rather, she is someone who looks out for them and has their best interests at heart. 

“You don’t get too many coaches that are that genuine and caring in this business, and it is a business at the end of the day,” Hilaire said. “But at the end of the day, she cares about us off the floor which Is a big part. She’s going to help me be the best person I can be, on and off the floor. I know that if I want to be a pro, she’ll make me a pro.” 

While only being at Stony Brook since the middle of August, Hillaire has the interconference rivalry down: “I hate Albany.”

McCombs has many weapons at her disposal and will use them anyway she can, although that may not be necessary, according to her.

“This is the deepest team I’ve ever had,” McCombs said.

The deep team has helped McCombs win the first three games of the season, bringing her career win total to 89. Already the winningest coach in team history, McCombs needs 11 more to crack 100.

While the season is just getting started, the team is aiming to be on a crash course for the America East finals with the two-time regular season and tournament champions: the Maine Black Bears.

Time for the Seawolves to go hunting.

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