After each of Kyle Rechlicz’s first three seasons as head coach of Milwaukee’s women’s basketball team, during which the Panthers never won more than 10 games and went a combined 27-62, there was a one-word theme in her performance evaluations:
The culture was changing. The team was improving. Winning was just around the corner. Just give it a little more time.
But Rechlicz was not asking for patience from her bosses in the athletic department.
It was the other way around.
“They were saying it to me because I’m just not a very patient person,” Rechlicz said with a laugh. “I want things to happen in the immediate and so I was very consistent about, you know, we need to get there.”
If the Panthers are not there yet, they’re awfully close. Milwaukee is coming off back-to-back 20-victory seasons for the first time since the program moved to Division 1 and has advanced to the postseason in each of the last three years, racking up a combined 82 wins over that span.
An impressive turnaround
Along the way, there has been a shift in the way the players look at themselves and the program.
“I think some of those first three years we were walking into games hoping we wouldn’t lose,” Rechlicz said. “We would say, ‘We are playing Green Bay’ instead of ‘Green Bay is playing us.’ There’s a different mentality now. Teams are coming to play us. We have a little bit more confidence. Obviously, once you start winning a little bit that confidence increases.”
It’s been an impressive turnaround for a program that had struggled for relevance for the better part of a decade. Rechlicz has been an agent of change, stressing character, team unity and accountability in the classroom and on the court. They are the linchpins of her coaching philosophy, which is rooted in the commitment to strive daily for excellence.
When Rechlicz took over in 2012, the team grade-point average hovered around 2.7. Last year, she said, the GPA was 3.5. There is not necessarily a correlation between hitting the books and hitting jump shots – the latter does require a certain amount of athletic skill – but Rechlicz believes a strong work ethic in the classroom carries over to the court.
“I’m very much a character person in terms of recruiting players and in terms of the athletes that I have,” she said. “There are a lot of skilled players out there, but I think character is what makes or breaks your experience both as a coach and as a student-athlete.
“When I came in, academics weren’t much of a priority. There was a lot of partying going on. A lot of stuff that doesn’t associate with me in terms of Division 1 athletics because we’re extremely fortunate and blessed to be able to get these full Division 1 scholarships, to be able to get our degrees, to be able to move forward in our lives.
“I didn’t feel like the team, at the time when I first took over, was taking that seriously. We came in and hit our core values very hard.”
Change does take time, however, and Rechlicz’s first three teams went 9-20, 8-22 and 10-20.
“It was a hard three years,” the coach acknowledged.
Seniors lead the way
The light at the end of the tunnel was supplied in 2014-15 by three seniors: Ashley Green, Macie Dorow and Hannah Kaul. The trio embraced Rechlicz”s message, challenging themselves and their teammates on and off the court and setting a standard for the program. After the Panthers were eliminated by UW-Green Bay in the Horizon League tournament, Rechlicz brought them in front of the team.
“I said, ‘You have left your legacy here. It might not have been in terms of wins but it absolutely has been in terms of changing the culture,’” she said. “I said, ‘We are going to win because of you.’ And sure enough, the next year we won 19 games. I honestly believe a large part of it was due to those three and the commitment they made.”
Post players Jenny Lindner and Steph Kostowicz were a couple of impressionable freshmen on that team and picked up where Green, Dorow and Kaul left off. They would lead Milwaukee’s renaissance and fuel the back-to-back 20-win seasons.
Last year, Lindner averaged 14.2 points and 7.9 rebounds and Kostowicz averaged 13.6 and 7.5 as the Panthers reached the second round of the WNIT before bowing to Indiana, 74-54. Milwaukee was the only Horizon League team to win a game in postseason play.
Lindner, Kostowicz and Bailey Farley (11.7 points per game) have moved on and the 2018-19 Panthers are young, with five freshmen, five sophomores and just two seniors on the roster.
If anything, though, the talent level has improved. Rechlicz is known as an offensive-oriented coach, but she thinks this group has a chance to be her best defensive team because of the players’ length and athleticism. The post players are raw but skilled and the guards will present tough match-ups.
Bre Cera, a Mukwonago native and redshirt sophomore who started her career at Iowa before transferring to UWM, is a difference maker at guard. She started 18 games as a true freshman at Iowa and helped the Hawkeyes reach the quarterfinals of the WNIT.
“She is an incredible player,” Rechlicz said. “Probably one of the best defenders that we’ve had here, and really knows how to score. I’m very excited about her.”
Another guard, junior Jamie Reit, started 30 games last season and is the leading returning scorer (8.7 points per game).
“I think our guard play is going to be a strength for us this year and so we’ve got to find ways to put our guards in good positions to score,” Rechlicz said. “But our posts are young and they’re talented and so I could see by mid- to end of the season them stepping up in some of those categories and really helping us down the stretch.
“I think our team is definitely going to evolve as the season goes along. I think we’re going to start off as one team and by the time we get to the conference tournament we’re going to be a completely different team.”
A fierce competitor in Green Bay
There is no question Milwaukee is on the right track but if the Panthers are to reach all their program goals, they’re going to have to find a way to compete toe-to-toe with UW-Green Bay, the conference’s 500-pound gorilla. The Phoenix went 29-4 last year and entered the 2018-19 season having won 20 consecutive regular-season conference titles.
Green Bay has made the postseason every year since 1998 and has strung together 40 consecutive winning seasons. Only Tennessee has a longer such streak in women’s college basketball.
Though the Panthers lost twice to the Phoenix last year, by scores of 52-29 and 65-36, Rechlicz believes her team is closing the gap.
“Absolutely, we are,” she said. “We’ve beaten them here recently (in 2017). We’ve had close games with them. They’re really good. (Coach Kevin Borseth) has built a system and he’s a really good coach and he teaches defense first. They were ranked No. 1 in the country last year defensively. We weren’t the only team to have problems with them on the offensive end.
“The players that come here definitely have an edge about them when it comes to Green Bay, just like I’m sure the Green Bay players have against Milwaukee. So, there’s definitely a different level of competitiveness when we hit Green Bay week.”
And it’s fun.
“The great part about it is that I don’t want Green Bay to change. I want them to still be as great as they are. I just want to continue to elevate our program to reach that level. If we can have two Horizon League teams playing at that level, how much better is our conference?”
Hungry for success
Rechlicz said her players’ goals for the season don’t include a certain number of victories. Though 20 has become the program benchmark, it will be a challenge to reach that total for the third consecutive year because the Panthers are young and the nonconference schedule is filled with quality teams.
But if there’s one thing the coach doesn’t worry about, it’s her players’ resolve.
“When you talk about being one, this group is the closest I’ve ever had to that,” she said. “They really are fighting for the same thing and that is continue what we’ve started, to continue to make it to postseason play. It’s been three years in a row now and their goal is to make it four.
“I think they’re extremely hungry for the next step. They all want to play in the NCAA Tournament. Every single one of them has a dream of that. And they’re not going to stop until they reach that goal.”