Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
WEST CHESTER — Each successful West Chester possession ended with a Michelle Kozicki punctuation mark.
Whether a bucket was hers or her teammate, each time the ball went through the Rams hoop, Koczicki — whose teammates and coaches all call her ‘Mia’ — had a fist pump, a little yell, a quick flex. An emphasis on each successful trip, no matter whose success it was. It’s a holdover, she said, from her days as a volleyball player, where they celebrated every point.
“I like celebrating, I think it’s fun, and I like celebrating not only my wins but my team’s wins,” she said, adding: “I think I get the fist-pump from my dad, to be honest.”
Right now, she’s got plenty to celebrate.
West Chester head coach Kiera Wooden (right) and assistant Allison Hostetter have the Rams No. 13 in the country in the preseason polls. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
The Rams are 4-0 on the season after beating Chestnut Hill 71-51 on Monday night, the nation’s preseason No. 13 squad carrying a whole ton of momentum after the program’s first-ever Sweet 16 appearance this spring.
(Ed. Note: the Rams were voted No. 6 in a poll that came out on Tuesday, November 21. It's the highest ranking in program history).
Mascots be damned, these Rams aren’t goats with horns. They’re a battering ram, powerful and unrelenting, a blunt force object of which you really don’t want to be on the opposite end.
Chestnut Hill (2-3) was just the latest victim. West Chester hammered Wilmington 69-21 over the weekend, beating Livingstone College (N.C.) 85-56 before that.
The frontcourt of Kozicki and Emily McAteer has been a major reason West Chester jumped from consecutive nine-win seasons to a 24-victory campaign a year ago. The pair of Division I transfers give head coach Kiera Wooden more quality size up front than she’s had in quite some time: McAteer, at 6-foot-1 post with the ability to stretch the floor, Kozicki a versatile 6-0 power forward who could do a little bit of everything.
Wooden sold them on joining forces with Leah Johnson, an All-PSAC East First Teamer as a junior in 2021-22. The high-scoring point guard was an impressive on-ball presence, but she needed some help.
“They’ve absolutely changed (the program),” Wooden said. “We were sitting under 10 wins a season before they got here, a lot was on Leah’s shoulders, and we knew for us to be successful, we had to get her some contributing pieces so it wouldn’t all have to rest on her.”
Kozicki (10) and McAteer (20) in action during West Chester's 71-51 win over Chestnut Hill College on Nov. 20, 2023. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
For both, West Chester has provided not just a successful landing spot but a place of redemption.
Kozicki, a Padua Academy (Del.) graduate, spent her first two years at La Salle, where she played in 41 games over two years but never cracked the top part of the rotation. McAteer, a Garnet Valley product, had a successful first two years at Loyola, averaging 9.2 ppg and 5.4 rpg in a starting role as a sophomore during the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season, but a coaching change before her junior year left her much further back in the rotation.
Both hit the transfer portal in the spring of 2022, not sure what was to come next. Neither had looked at West Chester coming out of high school, but connections to the school and area plus Wooden’s pitch sealed the deal.
“I had plenty of family that went here, I already knew about the campus but I didn’t know much about the basketball team,” McAteer said. “Once I got here, it felt like home, it felt like a family vibe, it felt more just like a fit for me.”
Both found immediate success in a Rams uniform. McAteer started all 33 games, averaging 15.6 ppg and 8.4 rpg while shooting 38.3% from beyond the arc, earning a First Team All-PSAC East nod. Kozicki was named the PSAC East Defensive Player of the Year and Second Team All-PSAC East after averaging 13.1 ppg and 8.2 rpg.
They weren’t the only impact transfers. Their roommate, USci transfer Anna McTamney, also jumped right into the starting lineup, averaging 12.8 ppg and 5.5 rpg last season.
West Chester lost its first two games last year on the road in West Virginia. Four straight wins got them back on the right side of .500, but it wasn’t until the calendar hit 2023 that the Rams hit their stride. They won 16 straight games from Jan. 14 to March 1, a loss in the PSAC semifinals not enough to keep them from the NCAA Tournament.
“It was wild because I’ve never really played that much, but then it was easier for me because we had so many other pieces,” Kozicki said. “I’ve never experienced that in college, where it was just so much fun to be playing on the court with so many girls that I loved.”
Playing as the No. 3 seed in the Atlantic bracket, WCU beat California (Pa.) and Charleston (W.Va.) to reach the NCAA Sweet 16 for the first time. Glenville State ended the run there, but the Rams knew their window wasn’t closed.
With the whole starting five and 90% of their scoring returning, West Chester entered this season with sky-high expectations inside and out. It’s not the first time Wooden has had a team in a similar spot: her first group as head coach, in 2014-15, was in the national top 10 in December and became her first to make an NCAA Tournament. She brought the Rams back the following year and again in 2018, but it wasn’t until this spring that they finally advanced.
Now the spotlight’s on her program once again, and she’s more well-equipped with how to handle it.
“I think that was one of the main things that we mentioned, what we did last year was last year, that has nothing to do with this year, what we did last year was because nobody knew your name,” Wooden said. “Now everybody knows all of you, and you’re going to get everybody’s best effort.
“This year’s team has so much more hype because of how far we advanced in the NCAA Tournament last year,” she added. “We’ve had targets on our back, but not to this extent.”
“We have a big target on our back and we have stuff to prove because we had that last season,” McAteer said. “I don’t think we can just say we’re No. 13 — we have to prove it.”
So far, they’re delivering.
Mercyhurst grad transfer Jayde Boyd (above) has been a nice addition this season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
McAteer (13.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg), Kozicki (13.5 ppg, 7.0 rpg), and Johnson (13.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg) are leading the way once again. Grad transfer Jayde Boyd (Mercyhurst) has jumped into the starting lineup, averaging 10.3 ppg and 3.5 rpg; McTamney (8.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg) rounds out the top group. Freshman wing forward Erin Daley (Plymouth Whitemarsh) is averaging 4.3 ppg and 3.3 rpg as the team’s most productive bench option thus far, increasing her statistical output in each subsequent outing. Junior wing Morgan Warley, freshman guard Kyla Glasser-Hyman and senior guard Briana Seltzer round out the rotation.
McAteer led the way with 19 points and eight rebounds against Chestnut Hill, knocking down a pair of 3-pointers and scoring plenty around the rim. Kozicki added 11 points, six rebounds and three assists, Boyd a dozen points and three boards, Johnson 10 points and four rebounds.
It was close early, West Chester leading 20-18 a minute into the second quarter. A 17-0 run that spanned most of the period slammed that door shut. The Rams forced 17 turnovers, hit nearly half their shots (30-of-63, 47.6%), an impressive individual effort from CHC’s Bridie McCann (18 points, 6-12 FG) keeping the gap from growing too much more over the second half.
The Rams have been dominant defensively to start the season, holding opponents to 49.3 ppg and just 31.1% from the field, 17.2% from 3-point range. They’re winning the rebounding battle by more than 14 boards per game, assisting on more than 60% of their own baskets, winning the turnover battle by more than four per game.
Wooden is far from satisfied.
“There are moments where it looks beautiful, and there are moments where we know there’s still progress and still development that needs to occur,” the 10th-year boss and WCU alum said. “But that’s with every team. it doesn’t matter if you had all returns or all newcomers, you’re working through the kinks. Sometimes it looks good on offense and on defense it doesn’t. Other times it’s vice-versa.
“I think we have the potential to be a scary team when it starts clicking on offense and defense and with multiple people on a given night,” she added. “I think that when we get to that point, we can be really scary.”
They’ve got another big matchup coming up next weekend (Nov. 26) at Jefferson before PSAC play begins with a couple visits from Slippery Rock (Dec. 1) and Edinboro (Dec. 2).
That’s still just the beginning of the road, PSAC play starting in earnest midway through December and continuing through March 2, a whole two dozen games remaining before postseason play comes into focus.
“I just like taking it game-by-game, day-by-day,” Kozicki said. “Every game is a challenge, every time is an opportunity to celebrate if we’re doing something good or an opportunity to make it better. Celebrate the little wins instead of what’s to come in the future. I just like celebrating what’s here and now.”
“Nobody cares where you are in November,” Wooden said. “Where are you in March? That’s what we’re trying to focus on.”