Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
It’s a critical offseason for Drexel’s women.
The Dragons are turning over a new leaf — all-time leading scorer Keishana Washington and starting point guard Maura Hendrixson both graduated, while one of the team’s top freshmen, Kylie Lavelle, hit the transfer portal. Freshman guard Grace O’Neill will take a big step forward in expectations next year, while a number of other former reserves will become featured players alongside her.
We talked to third-year head coach Amy Mallon in late March as part of our series of City 6 Q+As; here’s a transcript of our conversation, edited for readability and length:
Drexel women's basketball coach Amy Mallon stands on the sideline during a game this past season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
CoBL: Thank you so much for taking some time to speak with us. It’s been a couple weeks since your season ended, what do those first few postseason weeks look like? What have you been up to since the end of the year?
Amy Mallon: I think a little bit reflecting on — you get done and it seems like it goes so fast, you know? But then you’re also like, you need a breather just to reflect, and just take time to enjoy the season, especially because I thought we had a great year, we had a year of — some wouldn’t say this because we had one of the leading scorers in the nation in Keishana Washington, the Player of the Year in the conference, but I feel like we overachieved in so many ways.
And I say that because we had two experienced guards back but we only had one returning starter in Keishana, and what I’m so most proud of when I look back on it, I look back at a player like Kei who chose to come back…to have a player like that come back and spend a fifth year leading your team to a regular-season title as well as postseason, as the only returning starter, and took all that on her shoulders on top of having the type of stellar year she had individually, it’s impressive, and to do that back-to-back-to-back years, win two titles, a tournament title, is pretty cool.
I think this team did overachieve, and that’s not to say they weren’t good enough to do what we did, but I think we did so many things well and that’s kind of what you do, when you look back. You try not to get so bummed as to, ‘Gosh, why didn’t we win that last game?’, or ‘Why didn’t we win the game in the tournament that puts us in the next round?’ When I sum it all together, we had a pretty successful year.
CoBL: You did have 20-plus wins for the second straight year, but you did lose your last three games of the season — regular season finale, first game of the CAA Tournament and first round of the WNIT. Was there anything that you could pinpoint as to what wasn’t going right there at the end?
AM: I really think when you look at that, when you look back at it, I think other teams were continuing to get stronger, and I do think our inexperience in the sense of some of our youth, we were playing teams, when I look at a team like Monmouth and reflect back, they had three grad transfers and two seniors, they had this growth, they had a lot of transfers that really started gelling. I felt like our inexperience was being exposed. You could see things happening that I felt maybe a senior team wouldn’t do, if you had more [experienced] people on the floor. I think the same thing with Fordham, you play a team like Fordham and they had six seniors, and there was this piece — I think some of our weaknesses were exposed more, having that youth on the floor, not really having that third scorer for us on the floor. When you play those teams, especially in those moments at the end of the year, you’re seeing a lot of balanced scoring, balanced overall production.
The games became [one]-possession games, for us. The Monmouth game, possession game. The NC A&T game, possession game. And the Fordham game, a possession game. When you look at that as a coach and you’re in situations where the year before we won a lot of those possession games, that’s where I think some of your experience in those moments was exposed. Whether it’s a foul at the wrong moment, not getting that rebound exactly when you needed it, just some things, and I do think that I saw a little bit at the end. I feel like it’s obviously something for our young ones, I think we’re going to get better at, but also something that, to me, as a coach, I felt like hey those are things I really saw in those moments.
CoBL: Going back to Keishana, who had an incredible final season. Did you ever joke around with her that she scores 27.7 ppg this year — and she’s not even the leading scorer in the city?
AM: You know, it's funny, because you reflect back on that I don't think it's like, she went into this year saying I’m going to be the leading scorer in the [city.] But I always laugh because I always talk to Denise like, we had similar teams in so many ways, like, and I say that not because we achieved the same success in the postseason, but we had similar like, we had this player who just did so much on the floor from a scoring standpoint, and then we had some younger players around them. I feel like even when we would have conversations about our teams, we were talking about the same things, you know, same things we were working through or doing.
For (Washington) to be as efficient as she was — and I say that, she’s a mid-range shooter, you know — and to score as many points as she did, I think that's really impressive. Like, it wasn't like she's a three point shooter; she shot threes, but all her scoring was from mid-range. So I think that was like a cool thing about how she scored, you know, and when she did it in those moments, too.
CoBL: So, moving forward, what’s the biggest key to replacing that scoring? Obviously you’re not going to replace her through one player, it’s through multiple players. How much of the early focus this offseason is getting others to develop that scoring mindset?
AM: That’s going to be crucial. I look at it, and I’ve said this, obviously I’ve been at Drexel for quite some time and we’ve had successful teams and I think in those moments, even whoever your leading scorer is in the time, everyone’s been a little bit different. You have a Bailey Greenberg at one point, you have a Kelsi Lidge the one year [2017-18], three 1,000-point scorers the year before that in Meg Creighton, Jess Pellechio and Sarah Curran. So we’ve scored in different ways and I think, like you just said, we might not have a player like Keishana Washington returning…but I think as a core, you have a group that you know, we have a map of success at Drexel that has worked. This path has worked for quite some time, and we know what it takes for the success to take place. That’s what I remind my team, you don’t know, and that’s part of the fun of it, you don’t know who it’s going to be but we have someone who steps up and does that for us. Next year, that’s what we’ll be looking for, those players who are going to work and get to the point and develop where they know what we do and are capable of being successful because it works, we know it worked, and we have pretty good success with it.
CoBL: Before we turn too much to the offseason, I do want to focus on a couple more players who won’t be with you moving forward. Maura Hendrixson, coming off the torn ACL in 2021-22, you could see that she’d really moved past the injury in a significant way this year. It almost seems like she could be as tough a piece to replace as Washington is, for different reasons.
AM: I totally agree with you. I think, you know, you look at her journey and to have this major, serious injury and come back and have the success she had coming back from the injury on the floor for us. I think her role changed for us in the sense that she’s starting and she’s one of your key guards on the floor, and to be top [three] in the nation in assists — some people would say, is she top in assists because you have Keishana scoring, or is Keishana scoring because of her assists, the way she passes? Obviously a lot of those assists were due to Kei being the person receiving it, but I do think she was that experience you needed to put yourself in position to be successful, and I thought she had a tremendous year. I would have liked to see her score some more points, I think that was the scoring we were missing in those moments, but I don’t think that’s something that she was looking to do. I think she had a tremendous year, from overall minutes on the floor, really being the floor general at times, and putting the ball in her hands at crucial moments, and willing to take that pressure, I’m so proud of Maura for her season and for returning for a year that was definitely different.
CoBL: The other big departure is Kylie Lavelle, who’s hit the transfer portal after a successful freshman season. Was that a surprise to you, or with the new reality of the transfer portal, is that something you have to be prepared for these days? How does it affect your team planning moving forward?
AM: I think it’s unfortunately a little bit of both. Maybe a surprise in the sense that obviously when you have a player who starts for you, is all-rookie, has great success in the year and doesn’t really give you any indication through the process that this might not be where they’re going to be for the next three years, it kind of presents itself as what it is. It’s also what you said, it’s the way right now in our business, unfortunately, and I think mid-major schools in particular are really [affected]. It’s unfortunate, they’re the schools that you’re seeing affected the most by it, and I say that because we spend so much time really getting the right kids in and you have them and if people are telling them, ‘Hey, you can have a better situation here or there,’ and especially after your first year, and you’re still a young adult who some of those things might be attractive to, it is, it’s a chance for them to just hop and go. I think in that situation, it’s almost the way.
It’s not like we’re the only school, you look in the portal and there’s 1,200 kids in the portal, 1,200 Division I women’s basketball players in the portal, and that just goes to show, that number’s way increased from last year. I just think it’s taken away from the opportunity to enjoy and reflect on a season because as soon as the season’s over, you’re worried about who’s coming back.
I wish her the best, and obviously the only disappointment I have is not having the opportunity to coach her the next three years, because I think she would have grown and been a special player in our league.
CoBL: You have several other seniors on the roster who have the fifth-year option, do you know yet who’s coming back and who isn’t?
AM: That’s the conversations we’re having right now. Obviously Brianne Borcky, who tore her ACL, she will be done, she’s out, even though she has another year of eligibility, with her injury she just won’t be back. There’s two other seniors in Hetta Saatman and Tori Hyduke who have another year of eligibility due to the COVID rule and I think those are conversations we’re having now, having the conversation and trying to figure out the next step, whether they continue playing, they’re both graduating. That’s what I think a lot of schools are going through, talking about the rosters and needs and talking with current seniors who have that extra year.
CoBL: And what about girls signed to come in as freshmen this year?
AM: Well, Laine Mcgurk, from Rustin. Perfect timing, right? We lose a piece, someone who can drop about 30 points and we bring in another one who I think is capable of doing that at some point.
CoBL: There’s been an increasing trend in the new era of the transfer portal of D-I programs going to D-II, D-III and NAIA grad transfers who’ve proven themselves at that level. How has that changed, that aspect of looking to a lower level for a fifth-year, or even someone who’s got multiple years of eligibility, like La Salle’s Molly Masciantonio? How do you evaluate someone coming out at that level versus a D-I transfer or a high school player? (Note: Drexel has also received a commitment from grad transfer Erin Doherty, a Haverford High grad who’s spent the last four years at D-III Catholic University in Washington, D.C. She hasn’t been announced yet by the program. Harcum College sophomore guard Amaris Baker also announced her commitment to the Dragons this week.)
AM: I think it’s like anything else, you do your research. You get feedback on the type of kid they are — I say kid, they’re young women — how they can come in and impact your program, and sometimes when you’re looking at players from smaller schools, maybe not Division I, there’s also that fire to prove that they can impact a program at the next level and they also have the experience. They’ve now played so many years, and they have some of that leadership that you’re looking for, coming in. You’re definitely going to see that, too, some of the best players you’ve seen at the high-major levels, some of the best players are coming from smaller schools. They are there, and I think you have to do a little more research and you have to find them. I always say with the portal, it’s crazy, because it’s a big tidal wave coming in, and for us and the other mid-major schools, you wait to see where people settle, where the waters settle, and figure out where to go.
CoBL: Do you think your program is done making moves for the offseason, or do you expect there’s another one or two coming, adding another piece or two through the portal?
AM: I think we’re going to look to find another piece or two. We had another situation last summer, we had a player who was a teammate of Kylie’s, Moriah Murray, who was predicted to come in, and same boat, that kind of hurt us because she left and we couldn’t replace her position, when you talk about having a position that you couldn’t fill this year, that third scorer, we were anticipating her being that third person. I think that’s where you see the impact of it not being good, because you have someone leave, she’s now up at Penn State, and now you’re back to, that was a kid we didn’t recruit players in the 2023 class because we thought she’d be on the floor for us. In our eyes, we have some more spots to fill that we’re going to be looking to fill.
CoBL: Overall, it’s going to be a new-look team for sure next year. We briefly touched on the scoring part of it, but it’s more turnover than you’ve had the last few years. What will this summer be like, how will the practices be different than the last years when you’ve had (Hannah) Nihill, Washington, Hendrixson back in the mold?
AM: I think it’s going to be seeing that next group step up. This team’s going to remind me a lot of our 2018 regular-season team with Kelsi Lidge. That summer, we went into it losing three 1,000-point scorers and Kelsi Lidge was coming back as a senior, and I remember having the conversation as a staff like ‘oh my gosh, we’ll be lucky if we’re .500 next year,’ we lost our starting lineup, our leadership, everything. That’s all sometimes some young people need to hear because that year we won the regular-season title behind Kelsi Lidge ,who became an all-conference defensive player, all-conference player, so sometimes that motivation where people think, how are they going to do it, I think that’s what’s been great about being at Drexel, sometimes we just find a way. The team basketball we play is always a little different than what other programs do. Finding the next people who are going to step up, it’s almost like it’s out there, who’s going to step into it and say ‘hey, I want to take this team and find a way to win.’ Obviously expectations won’t be as high next year from outsiders looking in, but our expectations of ourselves are always high, so I know we’re going to get the best out of that group.
I do think some of the young ones, like a Grace O’Neill — what a great leader, what a tough kid. You have toughness like that, you just know you can go a long way with that.
CoBL: I was just about to ask if there were any players in particular that you were hoping to take that step forward, or were going to put particular pressure on to be that leader.
AM: They’re not going to be the next Keishana Washington, nobody’s going to be that, but you have players who are capable of stepping up. We have Chloe Hodges, who came off the bench for us this year and had valuable minutes, Jasmine Valentine who did some great things from a defensive and rebounding [standpoint], and then you have Grace O’Neill who’s all-rookie as a point guard in our program, as you know our point guards have been extremely successful here, between Hannah Nihill and Meg Creighton, our past point guards and what they’ve been able to do, that’s what I love about Grace, she’s going to set that tone. And we have Momo LeClair, who’s a current sophomore who tore her ACL and is back, she’s fully back. If I could have subbed her in this year, I would have, but we had to wait. I think we have some really great young ones that are aspiring to [step up.] Just a lot of young ones, so it’s kind of the unknown. We’ll build on it and see who really steps up to the challenge, because it won’t be one person, I know next year it’ll be as a group, what we’re capable of doing.
CoBL: Do you enjoy the unknown? Is it scary? What’s that like for you?
AM: You know what, I think no coach is going to say it’s not scary, but I think when you know that you’ve had something that actually works and is successful, you know it works. And it’s not like it’s just worked one year, as much as I’ve only been the head coach here three years, I’ve been part of the program for 19. And of that 19 years, we’ve been in the postseason the last 11. That to me just shows consistency in what we do, it doesn’t mean you don’t change things, but you know you can find a way to do it. I believe in what we do, and yeah, you do have to change it, you can’t just stay the same, but it’s like everybody says, you either get better or you fall behind. I think for us, we find a way to use the things we use and be successful at it and it is, it’s the scary part but you’re almost excited, because you coach, it’s fun to see it come together. It might not always come together as fast as you want, but I’ve seen it happen, so I know it can happen.