On April 19, 2016, Todd Starkey was hired as the head coach of the Kent State women’s basketball team after spending the past two seasons as an assistant at the University of Indiana.
Starkey inherited a team that limped to a 6-23 season and finished 11th in the Mid-American Conference the previous season. He had a core that consisted of a senior guard with only one Division I offer coming out of high school, a junior 6-foot-2 forward who was still establishing herself as a force in the paint and a former Michigan State softball player who was in her second year of college basketball.
Meanwhile, Starkey came off a 21-12 season at Indiana where his star guards — Tyra Buss and Amanda Cahill — led the Hoosiers to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Fast-forward 10 months, however, and Starkey and his aforementioned core players —senior Larissa Lurken, junior Jordan Korinek and senior McKenna Stephens — have a 14-11 record and are sitting at fifth place in the MAC. A home win against Ohio University on Saturday would put the Flashes in the driver’s seat for a first-round bye to Cleveland.
But don’t mistake their success for complacency.
‘A different style’
This past Tuesday, the trio of Lurken, Korinek and Stephens were sitting in Starkey’s office after practice remembering when they first found out the coach had been hired.
“That was so long ago,” Korinek said before scrunching her face up in an attempt to rack her brain for the memory.
Lurken, who has benefitted the most under Starkey’s coaching, wasn’t present for his first meeting with the team.
“(Starkey) came in and talked with our team before he was hired, and I wasn’t there so I met him actually after everyone else did,” Lurken said, still uniform clad from practice.
Coming into the season, Lurken averaged a little over 11 points per game in her first three years. However, it was a career that looked to be defined more by losses than individual success; the team had compiled a record of 18-71 over those seasons.
Under Starkey, however, Lurken’s game has changed significantly. Before, Lurken being in the paint would have been something of an anomaly, as her game was more built around her jump shot. Now, Lurken makes a habit of driving into the lane and absorbing contact, which is the main reason she leads the nation in both free-throw attempts and makes.
Lurken has still proved that she has a deadly jump-shot, as she’s made 52 three-pointers this year on a 36.1 percent clip, but she’s also adapted her game. It’s one of the biggest reasons for the team's success.
“It’s a different style,” Lurken said. “I’ve had many different coaches over the years so it wasn’t really scary, it was just different. And we liked the change.”
Korinek, as a compliment to Lurken, has established herself as a solid presence in the paint, averaging 15 points per game to go along with six rebounds, while Stephens (8.8 ppg) leads the team in three-point shooting percentage at 36.5 percent. Stephens originally committed to Michigan State University to play softball, but transferred to Kent State after she suffered an injury.
“For people who played under (former coach Danielle O’Banion) longer, it was probably harder to adjust,” Stephens said. “It wasn’t so much the system (that was tough) for me, but more just learning about basketball. I was so focused on softball so when I transferred … I didn’t know what a lot of (basketball stuff was). It was more switching sports.”
Same team, different result
What makes the Flashes success so baffling is the fact they’re succeeding with the same pieces that they’ve had for the past two years, as the team’s starting five of Lurken, Korinek, Stephens, sophomore Alexa Golden and junior Naddiyah Cross is virtually made up of the same players as last year.
Despite this, Starkey said the idea of stepping into a program that had a veteran team wasn’t something that influenced his decision to apply for the position.
“I decided to come here because I believe in the vision of where the athletic administration and ... Warren wants women’s basketball to go,” Starkey said, “(I applied) because I think the MAC is a really good conference with really good coaches and I was excited about that challenge.”
After growing up 45 minutes away from Kent in Youngstown, Ohio, Starkey said the opportunity to be a mid-major Division 1 head coach was exciting.
“There’s something about coming back home that’s a new thing,” he said.
Starkey’s hiring left the team in an awkward logistical position, as his late-April hiring not only affected his ability to recruit, but it also meant he wasn’t able to have two workouts with the team before the semester let out for the summer.
The lack of recruiting is evident with the Flashes roster now, as there is almost no change in this year’s roster compared to last years.
Freshman Ali Poole is the lone newcomer for the team, who lost both Tyra James and Samantha Neace in the offseason. James suffered a season-ending injury in the offseason, and Neace didn’t return to Kent State this past fall after missing all of last season due to illness.
Guard Megan Carter (who knocked down the Flashes’ lone game-winner this season against Bowling Green State University in January) could also count as a newcomer, as she had her freshman year cut short after three games last season due to a season-ending injury.
Starkey knew over the summer he had a team that had some talented players, but he knew their success hinged on how they did as a team. He’ll admit that the team’s success this year has surprised him.
“We’ve exceeded ours, and probably everybody’s, expectations to this point for sure,” Starkey said. “I think it’s a testament to how much the players have bought in. They’re just playing above where they thought they could and where we thought they could. It’s not where we wanna be for the program and the end of the year, you’re chasing your goals as you go."
Starkey said that establishing goals as a team has been something that he has been doing since his first day with the Flashes.
“The first goal (we had) was to win as many games as they did last year. Then we wanted to win 10 games … double last year’s win total,” Starkey said. “Now it’s we want to end the season with a winning record, if we get to sixteen (wins) we guarantee a winning season. Then we want to get to Cleveland and play in the postseason, all those things are motivating factors for us.”
Last Saturday, the team completed every Kent State student-athlete’s dreams: beating the University of Akron on the road. The Flashes took the game over in the second quarter, and eventually cruised to a 72-58 win at James A. Rhodes Arena. The win marked the first time that the team beat Akron since 2012.
“It felt really, really good,” Korinek said in regards to beating Akron. “It was a long time coming. Hopefully we can keep that success up against them.”
While the win over the Zips may be the most satisfying accomplishment for the most of the Flashes, it doesn’t mean that it was the only one.
First, Lurken achieved her 1,000-career point against Baylor University in December at the Gulf Coast Showcase in Florida, a tournament in which she also set the scoring record for a Gulf Coast showcase game (39 points) and knocked down her 131st career three-pointer, the most in program history.
“I think (my mentality) changed down in Florida when we competed with some top teams like Baylor, Florida Gulf Coast and Western Kentucky,” Korinek said.
Korinek also etched her name in the Kent State record books this season, as she scored her 1,000-career point against University at Buffalo in February. The loss, ironically, also marks what could be the low-point for the Flashes this season, as they lost 77-62 to the Bulls in a game that would have helped them gain ground in the MAC East.
At first, that loss to the Bulls looked like it would loom large for the Flashes. Not only did it end their two-game winning-streak, but it also dropped them to third in the MAC with a record of 6-5.
The Flashes proved their resilience, however, as they followed the loss up with two straight wins while the Bulls dropped their game against Northern Illinois University, which catapulted them back into second place in the MAC East.
All that sets the Flashes up to their Saturday afternoon matchup against Ohio (18-6, 9-4 Mid-American Conference) that, with a win, could give the Flashes first place in the MAC East, an opportunity that hasn’t been lost on Lurken.
“(Having a MAC home game) would feel great, but there are no guarantees,” Lurken said. “Like I’ve said before, I think any team can win any day, so it’s not guaranteed that we’re going to Cleveland yet. It’s still nerve-wracking … but I’d feel nervous after any game.”
All this pressure to win doesn’t mean that the senior guard has lost perspective, however.
When asked if she thought the team would be where they’re at now at the beginning of the year, Lurken was quick to respond.
“No way,” she said, before looking over at her coach.
“It’s okay,” Starkey said with a slight grin on his face. “I said the same thing."
Henry Palattella is the sports editor, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.