Cyesha Goree sticks in playing rotation

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By Max Cohen, Daily Sports Editor
Published February 17, 2014

At the top of each locker in Michigan’s locker room, a laminated block ‘M’ rests right under each player’s name plate. All of the ‘M’s are maize, but on two lockers, the maize is completely overshadowed by orange basketball stickers.

The stickers represent a reward system used by the Wolverine coaching staff. To those outside the program, the stickers may seem akin to a system used in an elementary-school classroom, but to the women’s basketball team, they mean the difference between wins and losses.

The stickers aren’t rewarded for the obvious things needed to win games — points, rebounds and assists. Instead, they represent the things Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico finds most important, the things that aren’t found in a box score. Each time a player takes a charge or dives on the floor for a loose ball, she is awarded a sticker. Michigan assistant coach Joy McCorvey determines the allocation of the stickers, with Barnes Arico having the final say.

“It’s kind of really what we pride ourselves on and what we stand for as a team,” Barnes Arico said. “That we want to be the hardest-working team in America, that we want to do the intangibles, that we want to do the little things like take charges and get on the floor.”

Junior guard Nicole Elmblad is one of the two players with an ‘M’ covered in basketballs. She is the captain, the only returning starter on a youthful team. The other player wouldn’t have been so obvious at this time last year. Junior forward Cyesha Goree was a non-factor last season, but now she has an abundance of stickers to her name.

The stickers are the source of a friendly rivalry among the teammates. Goree says she hasn’t counted how many stickers she has, but breaks into a grin when asked who currently holds the lead.

“It’s pretty close, but I think I’m in the lead,” Goree said.

She’s correct. Though the coaches haven’t added stickers after Sunday’s game at Illinois, 35 stickers sit on Goree’s ‘M’, while Elmblad’s currently holds 31.

Goree’s fearless style of play has allowed her to accumulate so many stickers that Barnes Arico estimates she may need a second ‘M’ shortly.

Last season, she didn’t have the opportunity. On a winning team with established veterans, Goree toiled on the bench coming off knee surgery. The forward appeared in just nine games, registering 24 minutes of playing time. Goree hadn’t mastered the consistency both on and off the court that Barnes Arico desired of her players. This year, Goree runs toward the scene of loose balls, diving for possession without a second thought.

“She had to really try on being the basketball player she could be 100 percent of the time,” Barnes Arico said. “She had to try to be the best student that she could be 100 percent of the time and be the best person that she could be all the time.”

Goree’s up-and-down days infringed upon her ability to make an impact on the court. She showed flashes of success both on the court in practice and in the classroom, but there were also days where Goree didn’t show the effort it takes to be successful. Goree credits conversations with Barnes Arico as critical to helping her realize her full potential.

Because of her prior knee surgeries, Goree’s fitness wasn’t where Barnes Arico wanted it to be. Goree made that her first mission, to improve her physical fitness, a difficult challenge for a player who struggled with consistency. Each day, Goree worked to improve physically, even on game days, a time some bench players take to relax.

“If you don’t play, that’s kind of like a day off for you,” Goree said. “But I didn’t use it as a day off. I got on the treadmill and ran a couple miles to try to stay in shape.”

The new, difficult commitment to fitness didn’t result in immediate playing time. Goree maintained her role on the practice team, trying to help prepare the starters and key players each day in practice.

In her two years as Michigan’s coach, Barnes Arico has used another method of competition to quantify success in practice by adding up the statistics each player accumulates in practice. The statistics are updated each day, so each practice has a winner. At the end of the week, the statistics are totaled, and the team has a weekly winner.

For most of last season, either senior forward Rachel Sheffer or senior guard Jenny Ryan won every week. Toward the end of the season, Goree’s name started to creep toward the top of the list.

“She would win the day,” Barnes Arico said. “And then she won a couple of weeks. And I’m like, golly, Cyesha, what happened? She’s really starting to make a difference in practice.”

When the seniors graduated and left behind a depleted roster, Goree knew that the time to step up was upon her. Her dedication to her fitness continued into the offseason as she continued to trim weight and get into her best playing shape.

By the time summer workouts rolled around, Goree finally had her opportunity to prove herself among a new cast of players. Goree thought she would likely receive playing time out of necessity, but she wanted more.

“It was time to show all the hard work I did and everything I did to prepare myself for this moment so that (Barnes Arico) could believe in me and actually want to play me, instead of having to play me,” Goree said.

Goree earned a spot in the starting lineup by the season opener. In the team’s second game, she proved she belonged, hitting a buzzer beater to send the game against Arizona to overtime. She hasn’t left the starting lineup since, starting all 26 games along with her co-sticker leader Elmblad.

Sunday, Goree put forth her best effort of the season, recording career highs of 30 points and 19 rebounds. The little-used sophomore turned often-relied on junior earned the Big Ten Player of the Week award for her effort. Barnes Arico is impressed, but not satisfied.

“I still feel as if there’s another part of her game which she has to improve, and that’s on the defensive end,” Barnes Arico said.

After all, Goree has improved before. She has the stickers to prove it.