By Matthew Stoss, Daily News-Record
Kevin Griffin sat in the Eastern Mennonite University athletic office’s equivalent of a breakfast nook. It’s off in a corner with a window, a coffee table covered in a messy assortment of waiting-room literature and some cushiony furniture.
Whenever Griffin – the Royals’ fourth-year women’s basketball coach – saw one of his players walk by, it was the same routine. It’s like he’s the mayor of the EMU athletic office’s fake breakfast nook. Griffin says, “Hey, girl,” and they respond with a smile, a wave or some friendly small talk.
Cohesion is important to Griffin, who seeks out the right fits for his team rather than pursuing one or two stud athletes.
It’s for that reason, Griffin and players said, that EMU is 10-2 overall and 5-2 in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference – despite losing four starters from last year and two post players to knee injuries this season, plus dealing with its leading scorer’s mysterious thyroid disease.
“Is this about you or is it about the team?” said Griffin, boiling down his coaching/recruiting philosophy.
So far, it has been the latter.
“Our team is so close and so talented, if one player gets sick or injured, we’re good enough where someone will step up,” said sophomore forward Danielle Scott, who transferred to Division III EMU from low-level D-I Morgan State this season and is averaging 11.8 points and 6.5 rebounds. “All and all, we’re just talented, and we complement each other really well.”
Most of the players Griffin has recruited – such as leading scorer Brittany Snyder, whose thyroid problem has limited her to one practice since Dec. 3 – didn’t stir much interest from anyone besides EMU.
Most, though, had postseason experience in high school.
“A lot of teams have one good player or two good players,” said EMU junior point guard Melissa Lewis, a Stuarts Draft High School graduate who is averaging 8.2 points and 4.2 assists per game. “We don’t have that. Here, everyone contributes.”
EMU’s style has made that easier. The roster is composed of moving parts that fit into a relentless, transition-based system, where no one player can shoot too much. The system relies on motion more than set plays. It also uses EMU’s team speed, led by Lewis and junior guard Ebony Dennis, who Griffin tabbed as the Royals’ fastest players.
That allows Eastern Mennonite more flexibility with its personnel. So when senior swingman Kathleen Kitchen (9.3 points and 5.3 rebounds) and freshman forward Breanna Derstine (poised to get significant minutes) went down with ligament injuries, it wasn’t a huge problem.
“We talked about it,” Griffin said. “Do we want to change or do we want to keep doing what we do and plug players in and hope it works? That’s what we’ve done. … This is who we are. We’ve practiced it for two months. It’s what we believe, it’s what we’ve preached; it’s what we’ve been successful with in the past.”
The Royals have excelled even with Snyder’s diminished presence. She has played in 11 of 12 games but can’t go more than two to three minutes at a time because of the thyroid condition, which comes with headaches, loss of appetite and severe fatigue. Still, the Riverheads grad is averaging 14.7 points per game. Before the illness, she was over 17.
“You try to go into the game knowing she can’t do a lot more than stand there and shoot it – if she can do that. It’s been tough,” Griffin said of Snyder’s loss.
But EMU has persevered. After losing to ODAC rival Bridgewater on Tuesday, the Royals have won two straight, beating Emory & Henry and Guilford, putting them in a three-way tie for second place in the conference.
They also have the best overall record in the ODAC, while going for their seventh straight winning season.
“We all play the same role, which is run up and down the floor and shoot layups,” Lewis said. “We can all do that.”