Kristen Gillespie was fully prepared to play the hand she was dealt.
Gillespie had 10 players back from last season’s Illinois State women’s basketball team. The rub was that team won only eight of 31 games before the former Lewis University coach was hired to revive the downtrodden Redbirds.
“We were not going to just add bodies,” said Gillespie. “We were going to make sure if we signed anyone late, they would live up to our character standards and be impact players. We were not looking for someone to develop.”
The fact Gillespie and her staff were able to address two glaring needs with a late recruiting start is just part of the glad tidings for a program that has not won more than 10 games in any of the past four seasons.
In 6-foot-2 junior college transfer Simone Goods, the Redbirds added a post player. In 5-5 Indianapolis Roncalli High School’s Paige Saylor, ISU landed a true point guard.
“As a coach, you never guarantee playing time,” Gillespie said. “But Simone and Paige definitely fill a need.”
The woefully undersized Redbirds had a minus 5.6 rebounding margin, which is actually a tribute to the hustle and determination of a roster that featured only one player taller than 6-foot.
ISU’s top rebounders were an athletic but hardly bulky Hannah Green at 6-0, a 6-2 freshman learning the college basketball ropes in Megan Talbot and Viria Livingston, an overachieving 5-8 dynamo.
Green has seen Goods in summer workouts and is thrilled to have a teammate much more suited for rough and tumble post play than herself.
“Simone will be a big threat in the post,” said Green. “She’s extremely strong and finishes very well.”
Offering further proof that talented post players can indeed be recruited to ISU, Gillespie has landed commitments from rising high school seniors in Lexy Koudelka of Nevada, Iowa, and Plainfield South’s Anya Brooks. Both are 6-2.
So, in 2½ months, Gillespie has convinced three inside players to join the Redbirds. That is nothing short of phenomenal progress.
Much progress, however, must now be accomplished on the court. And Gillespie is not naïve enough to think she can merely blow her whistle and elevate ISU into the Missouri Valley Conference’s elite class.
“We want to get a little bit better every day,” Gillespie said. “We want to be playing our best basketball in January and February.”
Gillespie has chosen to work with small groups of her players this summer instead of the entire team with individual skill development the goal.
“Each of them have different needs. But they have done an unbelievable job of buying in,” said the ISU coach. “They are really hungry, dedicated young women fully committed to raising the bar.”
Green believes Gillespie’s arrival has ushered in “an incredibly good environment. The coaches are extremely positive. But when they need to tell you how it is, they let you know.”
According to Green, the Redbirds appreciate the consistency of approach by their new coaches. “The coaches have the same attitude every day,” said ISU’s lone senior. “That’s something the last coaching staff may have struggled with.”
To her credit, Gillespie has not run off any scholarship players. She wants to see and evaluate all of the Redbirds over an extended period with her own eyes.
Still, it is likely that during the coming season at least a couple players will discern they are unlikely to receive extensive future playing time and transfer elsewhere after the season.
Changes are coming rapidly for a once mighty ISU program that has managed a mere 28 wins the past four seasons combined. Changes were needed, and at least so far, Gillespie seems quite capable of bringing them about.