The first thing the new Long Island University women’s basketball coach wants to do is remind the long-suffering Lady Blackbirds why they love to play the game.
The squad has suffered through three-straight seasons of nine wins or less, and Stephanie Oliver, tapped last week to helm the Lady Blackbirds, just wants her new players to remember the joy of playing basketball before beginning the hard work of rebuilding and winning.
“At the end of the day, I want our players to know, it’s basketball,” said Oliver, who was an assistant coach on an NCAA team at Seton Hall last year. “Lets get back to loving it. Lets get back to what you did in CYO or AAU or what got you here.”
Junior guard Shanice Vaughan, who played at Bishop Ford, said the players have been all smiles since Oliver took over. They were without a coach for two months after Gail Striegler was fired in late March following eight seasons. All of them are ready for a new beginning following a tough campaign.
“I think it is time for the program to get a fresh start,” Vaughan said. “That’s what everyone has been waiting for.”
Oliver preached small steps first and didn’t make any bold predictions. She has been a part of numerous program turnarounds in her career. As a player at Marist she helped the Red Foxes reach its first NCAA tournament in 2004. She got her start caoching as an assistant at Caldwell College and Stevens Institute of Technology. Blackbirds athletic director Brad Cohen believes Oliver is the coach that can lift the Brooklyn program to the next level.
During her time as the head coach at Division II Bridgeport, she won a program-record 18 games in her final season in 2013. At Seton Hall, she was part of a staff that after two years brought the Pirates to its first NCAA tournament since 1995, won the Big East regular season title, and program-record 28 games.
“I’ve had a hand in every aspect of a quote-unquote ‘turnaround,’ ” Oliver said. “I really think the main thing is building a culture, and most importantly building a program. When our players graduate, I want them to come back here and say ‘that’s the program we built.’ ”
She would like to reestablish the Blackbirds’ recruiting roots in New York City and the tri-state area — something the program got away from in recent years. Last season’s roster had just two players from New York and New Jersey. While Oliver doesn’t want to limit herself, one of her main goals is to bring more of those kids into the fold again.
“Down the line I’d like for someone to be able to look at the roster and say, ‘In each class, there are players from the tri-state area,’ ” Oliver said.
The location was one of the things that made coaching at LIU desirable to Oliver. The school’s academic reputation and its hand-on athletic department also played a factor. Seton Hall head coach Tony Bozzella, who attended the announcement of Oliver’s appointment, is a former Blackbirds women’s hoops headman. He mentored Oliver through the hiring process and believes she is more than ready for the task at hand.
“I know what type of leader you need here, and she is certainly that,” he said. “She’s got a great personality. She is a tireless worker, but she understands great balance. She is going to make it an enjoyable experience for the student athletes.”
That seems to have already started. Oliver isn’t placing too much on them all at once, but is making sure they enjoy each step of the process.
“We just have to start small,” Oliver said. “The fundamentals, the little things — get back to the fundamentals. At the end of the day, we are just playing basketball.”