Monday, June 17, 2024

Great expectations

Women's basketball captains hope to lead No. 10 MSU back to prominence

November 5, 2009

This season’s women’s basketball team captains are seniors, from left: guard Mandy Piechowski, center Lauren Aitch, center Allyssa DeHaan and forward Aisha Jefferson. The Spartans are scheduled to play an exhibition game against Grand Valley State on Sunday at Breslin Center.

Every good group needs a set of leaders with a differing set of skills. In an episode of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” the characters labeled one another as “The Looks,” “The Brains,” “The Muscle” and “The Wild Card” to reflect the different skills each brought to the gang’s latest escapade.

It’s a similar tale for the MSU women’s basketball team this season.

Suzy Merchant’s squad boasts four senior captains — Lauren Aitch, Allyssa DeHaan, Aisha Jefferson and Mandy Piechowski — each of whom brings a diverse leadership style on and off the court and have been through thick and thin as Spartans.

They are each one of the reasons the team enters the season ranked No. 10 in the nation.

“They are so much more advanced at the intensity level,” Merchant said. “You have four kids that have played a lot of minutes and have been around a long time and they make sure we’re competing at the highest level every possession and every drill.”

On a team with 16 players, having four captains could seem excessive, but with each having her own way of doing things, Merchant doesn’t see it that way.

“I haven’t found it to be a challenge, I’ve found it to be a positive,” she said.

“As a coach, I’m not a big person on just naming captains to name them, just because they are seniors. I think you name captains because they mean something to your team, and those kids have a different dynamic, personality-wise, that can affect the team in a positive way.”

Said Piechowski: “We can all handle whatever situation best suits us, whatever personality clicks best with that person. … Whatever situation it is, we’ve really figured out which puzzle piece works and fits best.”

And with all four having spent at least three seasons with each other, verbal communication isn’t even needed at times.

“We’re really, really close and a lot of times we’re thinking the same thing,” Aitch said.

“It’s funny when we get together and talk about things, everybody is on the same page. Because we’re on the same page, it really brings the team together a lot better.”

As they all enter their final season in green and white, all four are looking to help the team in any way possible.

“This summer, all four of us seniors just kind of took control before we were even named captains,” DeHaan said. “We just sort of have that sense of pride and this is it, this is our big year and we just kind of took control from a couple months ago, so it’s not like, ‘you have this role, you have that role,’ it’s just, ‘we’re going to do what needs to be done, we’re going to do it.’”

The voice

Jefferson is entering her third season as a team captain.

The team’s unquestioned leader, Jefferson twice has seen the Spartans advance to the Sweet 16 and has the ability to take over a game.

After tearing her anterior cruciate ligament in an exhibition game in 2007, Jefferson continued to lead from the sidelines all season.

Returning last year, she was the only player to start all 33 games.

A self-described “hard-nosed” leader, Jefferson is the rock of the team.

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“Aisha’s personality is one that she can help lead even captains,” Merchant said. “There’s a group of four of them and she finds a way to get to get to each one of them.”

In a sea of voices, Jefferson’s is the loudest. She can be heard in the rafters, from pillar to post in every gym she plays in.

Whether it’s a word of encouragement or a helpful instruction, Jefferson has the ear of her teammates.

“It’s always a raised, intense voice, it’s always ready to go,” Piechowski said. “It’s just that ’isha personality.”

The mom

Piechowski says she is one of the most organized 21-year-olds you’ll ever meet.

Affectionately called “mom” by her teammates, Piechowski is beginning her second season as captain. She’s earned that distinction by making sure the team is in order in regard to its off-court activities.

“Every day, I text the whole team on what time we have to be there, what we have to wear and what will happen if they’re late,” Piechowski said.

“And I usually put a nice, ‘See you ladies later,’ so it doesn’t sound so mean at the end.”

Piechowski is a two time Academic All-Big Ten selection and the Spartans are 15-5 in games she starts.

She also is noted in opponents’ scouting reports as a serious threat from behind the 3-point line.

“She’s really responsible, so she keeps us in check,” Jefferson said. “She’s a great leader on the floor. She works hard every time she steps out on the floor. You can’t really say anything to Mandy, she does everything right.”

The silent assassin

DeHaan has been a focus of fans and opposing teams since she first stepped foot on the court at MSU.

At 6-foot-9, the Spartans’ towering center has learned how to play the game with more aggression and passion. DeHaan has been a menace for opposing offenses since blocking eight shots in her first exhibition game.

Now, she is the Big Ten’s leader in career blocked shots and is honing in on the NCAA record, needing 79 rejections this season to break the all-time mark.

She hasn’t recorded fewer than 107 blocks in a single season.

She said the foursome is ready to lead the team.

“I’m not as vocally dominant as my other teammates, but that’s just part of my personality. So, I’m just going to step it up in other areas,” DeHaan said.

Her blocks often are energizing for both the team and the crowd and deflating for the opponent. On the court, she lets her play do the talking. Off the court, DeHaan is even-keel when talking with teammates.

“Al is somebody who is going to sit down and tell you what the situation was and explain what you can do differently and just more of a calm approach,” Piechowski said.

The fire

Lauren Aitch has it all, Jefferson said.

An ever-evolving player, she also has battled back from a torn ACL and is the team’s hybrid leader. At times, she can be vocal like Jefferson or, other times, she leads by example like DeHaan.

Aitch has been a force off the bench for MSU since her knee injury, earning the team’s Sixth Player of the Year award the last two seasons. Her effort was no more evident than when she poured in 15 points in 18 minutes as the Spartans upset No. 1-seed Duke in the NCAA Tournament last season. Her determination and effort in all areas of the game have been critical for the team.

“She’s really tough,” Jefferson said. “She’s a competitor, she makes us better every day we get on the floor.”

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