Joe Legerski has been working hard at his profession for over 30 years.
He’s seen it all, right?
Well, maybe not everything. Maybe nothing quite like what he’s enjoying right now with his Cowgirl basketball team.
“When I look at where we’re at right now, I’d have to say they have been a pleasant surprise,” he says.
Legerski’s low-key approach is part of what makes him so successful. But “pleasant surprise” may be a bit of an understatement for even Joe. The Cowgirls have been nothing short of spectacular to this point in the campaign, surviving a very difficult preseason schedule and producing a flawless league performance. Wyoming is 11-3 overall, and 3-0 in league play. This is the best conference start since the 2007-08 season.
“I love their confidence, and their approach,” he says.
Legerski and his Cowgirls resume their amazing season tonight at Logan to battle Utah State in the Dee Glen Smith Center (live stats, video and audio can be found on the CoWyo.com website).
Lest we forget, these Cowgirls were picked to finish eighth in the Mountain West before the season began. Its best player, Marquelle Dent, had graduated, and everyone—coaches included—were wondering from where would the scoring come.
“Here’s what we knew about the season,” Legerski said Tuesday before his team embarked on their trip to Logan. “We were a team searching for a leader, and wondering exactly where our points would come from. We were a team with a lot of questions.”
Given the makeup of his team, Legerski and his outstanding coaching staff felt the Cowgirls needed to place a renewed emphasis on defense. They would have to hang their collective hats on that end of the floor.
To this point of the season they’ve done that big time, limiting opponents to just under 54 points per game. It has become their signature, and they take a great deal of pride in it. But a couple of other things happened that were unexpected
“While we were searching for a leader, two things happened,” Legerski says. “What we found was a shared responsibility with this team, as evidenced by the fact we have seven kids who are averaging between five and nine points per game. Everyone has taken on a bit of the responsibility. That’s not usually the case with a team.
“Liv Roberts was the other thing that happened that really helped us. She has stepped up as our leader, and is playing with a tremendous amount of confidence.” Twice the junior guard from Missoula has been named Mountain West Player of the Week. Against Fresno State last Wednesday she posted her third double-double of the season with 24 points and a career high 12 rebounds. She enters tonight’s game averaging 21 points per game in league play.
“We have really enjoyed watching Liv grow as a player,” Legerski says. “Now as a junior, she has stepped up as a vocal leader. No one works harder in practice. She sets the bar high for herself, then exceeds it, and then resets it.
“Our bench scoring also has been a big part of our success. Marta Gomez (sophomore, Valles, Spain) is a great example of what this team is all about. She started every game for us last year. Yet, this season she has embraced in a big way her role of coming off the bench and contributing significantly.”
Gomez is averaging almost 10 points and four rebounds per game for the Cowgirls. It was her huge three-pointer late in the game against Colorado that keyed Wyoming’s stunning upset of the undefeated and nationally ranked Lady Buffs at Boulder in late December.
That CU game was a component of a very challenging preseason schedule for the team. Games like Michigan State, Drake, South Dakota, and Colorado were difficult. While they didn’t win them all, the Cowgirls were competitive, and that was extremely important in their maturation process.
From Joe’s point of view, it was that Montana-Colorado road swing when the Cowgirls turned the corner. “To win those two games was very big for us from a confidence standpoint,” says Legerski. “The earlier games made us realize that we could be competitive each and every night out. Those two games told us we could win big games.”
Like most teams, Wyoming has usually deferred to the “star” down the stretch in past seasons. This Cowgirl team is different, according to Legerski. “No one on this team defers to anyone,” he says. “They all understand that they all contribute. The open person takes the last shot, and everyone is good with that.”
At this stage of the season Legerski knows everyone has had a part in the Cowgirl success. While Roberts and Gomez have been big factors, he is quick to mention two other key components.
“Our point guard from Spain (Clara Tapia) has been huge for us,” he says. “Clara is a great competitor. She is our glue that holds us together. She is a great decision-maker, and sees the court as well as anyone we’ve had. She wants to get better.
“Having Bailee (Cotton) healthy has been a big plus for us as well,” he continues. “She is a key to everything we do. The fact of the matter is everyone has been important.”
Pragmatically speaking at the team level, the Cowgirls have played at a little slower pace. They have reduced opponent possessions which has helped their defense. And, they have cut down their turnovers.
Legerski has a terrific perspective on what he does for a living. “Believe me, I know how important the wins and losses are. None of us likes to lose. None of us wants to finish eighth. So it’s extremely important that we make sure we are better today than we were yesterday. It’s important that we are doing everything we can to reach our potential. I think that’s what coaching is all about.”
He’s been in the business long enough to know that there will be hurdles and bumps on this road the Cowgirls are traveling. “But, right now it’s enjoyable because nobody really expected it,” he says. “That doesn’t happen very often. We’re living in the moment, and having a heck of a lot of fun. We want to keep it that way.”