When you think of a successful sports franchise, teams with strong identities are the ones that stand out most. The 1990s Chicago Bulls? Michael Jordan in the clutch. The Chicago Bears? Traditionally smashmouth defense and a running attack. The Atlanta Braves? Pitching, pitching and more pitching.
For 25 years, Bradley women’s basketball coach Andrea Gorski ’92 wanted her teams’ identity to be a tenacious defense and free-flowing offense, blending styles she learned from her high school coach, Nancy Sullivan, and her Bradley mentor, Lisa Boyer.
It’s worked, as Gorski-coached teams have improved their records nine of the past 10 years, including her assistant coaching stint at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.
Then this year’s Braves came along. The squad plays Gorski’s stingy defense, but the offense has evolved into a fast-paced game of who-has-the-ball. One night sophomore Gabi Haack may torch the nets from 3-point range. Another game, freshman point guard Tatum Koenig may bully her way to the best stats line in a last-second win at Cleveland State. When shots aren’t falling, leave it to junior Chelsea Brackman to record two 20-point, 20-rebound games in one season, becoming the first women’s basketball player to notch two in a career.
In a word: Random.
“You never know what you’re going to get — in a good way,” Gorski said. “This is one of the first teams I’ve coached where we don’t have that distinct identity. I never thought I’d like to coach like that, but it’s who we are.”
Players like Brackman enjoy the surprises each brings and the headaches that causes opponents.
“Everyone has different skills, different superpowers we possess,” she said. “That makes it fun because something new happens every night. We love taking on different roles.”
Some of that unpredictability comes from the squad’s youth, with nine freshmen and sophomores finding their places in Division I. It can make for competitive practices and occasional ups-and-downs during games as players adapt to each other and the competition.
Koenig, a former defensive back for the West Branch, Iowa, high school football team, is one of the newcomers making an impact. She started the season as a reserve, but played her way into the starting lineup by midseason.
“At first, she might foul out if she played too much, but she’s as tough as they come,” Gorski said. “You can’t relax against her. She has great hands like a defensive back and she’s all over the place like the Energizer Bunny.”
That youthful energy sparks a ray of hope for veterans like senior transfer Shunsere Kent.
“Most Division I freshmen don’t even touch the floor,” said Kent. “With their passion for the game, they’re going to be fun to watch after I graduate. It’s amazing to be part of the group this year.”
The mix of young talent wasted little time entering Bradley’s record books. The Braves opened the season on a 9-0 run, equaling the best start and longest winning streak in school history. Then, they snapped a 21-year skid at Indiana State. By mid-January, they topped last season’s win total and as of press time rank 4th in the Missouri Valley Conference (15-5 overall; 5-4 conference).
These are steps toward building a consistent winner for a club that lacks an historic pedigree.
“It’s a great feeling to break records and make school history,” said Haack. “We hope we’re paving the way for bigger, better records in the future.”
— Matt Hawkins