It’s hard to replace 1,000 points, a two-year starter and “Miss Hustle.” It’s even harder to replace 2,000 points, a four-year starter and the pacemaker of your team. Nicole Munger and Hallie Thome were the heart of the Michigan women’s basketball team, on the court and off it. They graduated last year – leaving the Wolverines needing a transplant.
But where some teams have trouble finding new leaders, there was no sign of such problems in Crisler Center at Wednesday’s media day. Senior forward Kayla Robbins and senior guard Akienreh Johnson have filled the gaps and made the team their own.
“I think sometimes the younger kids took a kind of backseat,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “Kind of just listened to (Thome) said this or (Munger) said this, we’re just going to follow what they say because they know best. Now, I feel like, the team really feels like, each individual person can contribute to the success of our team. Whether that’s from a basketball perspective or that’s from a voice.”
With the new season, Johnson and Robbins are each bringing their unique perspectives to the team. Neither of them have been regular starters for a whole season in their college careers – Johnson handicapped by injuries, Robbins coming off the bench. The pair nevertheless used their experience to reach out and make every member feel valued.
“What I’m trying to do is sit back and listen,” Johnson said. “When I was a freshman, I didn’t really have a voice because I didn’t think I could speak up. I didn’t think there was a place for me to speak up. But I always make sure that this year, everything is a debate.”
The two seniors are taking the mantle of what is probably the most talented Wolverine team under Barnes Arico. The coach’s 12th-ranked recruiting class from last season now has a year of experience under its belt. Three players have played internationally, and Michigan is coming off two straight trips to the NCAA Tournament after going five without a ticket to the dance.
The expectations are higher; the next steps are steeper. To climb them, the Wolverines need to grow over the course of the season by having leaders empower players who may not make an immediate impact.
“(Johnson and Robbins) opened (it) up so everyone feels like they have a voice,” Barnes Arico said. “Now when you come in there’s just an energy of everybody’s looking around, everybody’s ready to go. And that’s something different we haven’t had and I think that’s something the kids really like as they all feel they can contribute to our success.”
Added freshman guard Michelle Sidor: “If they see you getting down on yourself, if I’m having a bad practice or something, they’re definitely there to, especially (Johnson), to lift you up and be like ‘It’s alright, you got the next play, keep your head up.’ I think that’s huge.”
For Johnson and Robbins, though, building a team goes beyond the court. When freshman center Izabel Varejão arrived at her dorm, without her family, the team made time for her. They welcomed and supported her, grabbing dinner and ice cream to make her feel at home.
“They’ve done a really good job of helping us with anything,” said freshman guard Maddie Nolan. “Not even basketball-wise, if we needed advice about school or stuff around campus they’ve done a really good job of integrating us into a team.”
Added Robbins: “Me and (Johnson), we’ve had a different journey than everyone on the team and we’ve been the freshmen who came in and don’t really know what to say or what to do so we really just opened it up for the team. If somebody has a problem or somebody has a suggestion, they can always just bring it up. It’s never an issue.”
Johnson and Robbins probably won’t end up as Michigan’s leading scorers. They may not be the type of players that dominate a game, but they’re already making their mark on the team before the season has even started: a culture that prides itself on inclusivity.