Carrie Lohr watches her players during practice this week at Wayne State. (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)
Detroit — Carrie Lohr didn’t wear work boots and gloves when she swooped in and redesigned the Wayne State women’s basketball team three seasons ago.
But she did some heavy lifting. She tore out the base of a program that lacked a true foundation. She made basketball fun, brought in players that cared and tore the roof off of conventional thinking. Her players do not simply think of winning games and being competitive in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
“We want to win a national championship,” Lohr said earlier this week inside a conference room at the Matthaei Center on the Wayne State campus.
The program is humming along but the Warriors, ranked No. 21 in the latest Division II rankings, have unfinished business.
Lohr is not very big but she is a big thinker. She took over a program after the 2010-2011 season that endured seven losing seasons in the last eight. The Warriors were 78-137 overall and 55-93 in the GLIAC.
Times have changed.
Wayne State (19-5 overall, 16-4 GLIAC) lost, 85-77, on Thursday night at Ferris State, but remain on the cusp to record back-to-back 20-win seasons for the first time in school history. The Warriors are 41-14 the last two seasons and 33-9 in the GLIAC.
Their next home game is 1 p.m. Saturday against Grand Valley State (13-11, 11-9) at the Matthaei Center, where they can clinch at least a share of the North Division title with a victory.
“We often talk about the opportunities we have here,” Lohr said. “This is an untapped program and the sky is the limit. It is about finding players that are excited about watching the program grow.”
She sold playing time and an exciting style of basketball. The Warriors get up and down the court and play a shell game where 5-foot-4 guard Jackie Jones can find herself in the post or 6-1 junior center Shareta Brown on the wing.
WSU is first in the league in scoring (79.4 points a game) and field goal percentage (47.8 percent) and tied for first in assists per game (14.8) with Ashland. Yes, they like to run but it is also great to dump the ball inside to Brown, who averages a league-best 20.9 points a game and shoots 64.5 percent from the field.
When Lohr took over she inherited a roster with five experienced players. She encouraged players to show up for open gym in the summer. Only one showed up. Now players must wait to get into games for open gym against women players who return home for the summer from their schools.
“I was a little taken back. I was surprised what I was walking into,” Lohr said. “I was surprised there were not more checks in regards to academics, workouts. I walked in and there were five people. There was no schedule. There was no routine and there were no expectations. Maybe that is the wrong term to use, but I worked it in my favor. That allowed me to put in a system.”
She started by hiring longtime friend and rival Karen Lafata, who coached against her in community college. Lohr was 166-106 at St. Clair County Community College and Lafata 326-77 at Schoolcraft College and won eight conference titles.
Players admitted they did not know who Lohr was when athletic director Rob Fournier hired her to replace Gloria Bradley, whose contract was not renewed.
But players got to know her and they flocked to play for her.
Ondrea Hughes transferred from Cleveland State, Imari Redfield from Hope College, Ashley Wilson from Olivet Nazarene, Jones from Chicago State, and Destiny Lavita-Stephens and Brown came from Detroit Mercy.
Both Redfield and Jones wanted to be closer to home. Jones attended one of the open gyms and fell in love with the program. But both were hooked on Lohr, who sold the hunt for a national title.
“Once everyone got on board look how far we have come,” Redfield said. “I think that (wanting a national title) was the selling point for everybody.”
How realistic is that?
GLIAC member Ashland has been in the national title game the last two seasons and is the defending national champion. Michigan Tech played for the national title game in 2011 and Grand Valley won the title in 2006.
“We play in a very competitive league in terms of women’s basketball,” Lohr said. “If you play in this league you have a shot at a national championship. And that is what we sell to players that might be deciding between Wayne State and a lower Division I program or a mid-major. Do you have an opportunity to win a national championship at a Midwest mid-major? That is what separates us.”
Lohr made major changes, but she was willing to admit mistakes, consult with players and coaches and question herself. Players loved when she asked for advice. It gave them ownership in the program also.
“Coach had to find herself and find out what really worked for her,” Redfield said. “She not only had to have a system she believed in but she had to believe in us. She included us in the process. That made it special because a lot of coaches would come in and put the players to the side. They want to figure it out by themselves.”
The next step is a national title. They only have one senior on the roster so this team is ready to do more damage.
So what makes this team tick?’
“I think it is the system,” Jones said. “It brings us together not only as a team but as a family. We are just trying to achieve the same goals that put us on the map and makes us known. And shock the world, really.”