Wittenberg returns all five starters in Kolbe’s second season

Tigers open season Friday at home

Melissa Kolbe’s second season as the head coach of the Wittenberg Tigers begins at 7 p.m. Friday with a game against Ohio Northern at Pam Evans Smith Arena.

“I’m very fortunate that I return all five starters from last year,” Kolbe said Tuesday, “and obviously the top five returning scorers are back. I think we have a great mix of returners and veterans that understand the system and the culture and how we play and have an influx of both young talent and some transfers that I’m excited about. Overall, we have 13 new players — 10 freshmen and three transfers — and I think that’s just gonna allow us to play different at different points in the season and at different points in the game, which I’m excited about. We’ll be able to play fast and slow. Just to be able to have the versatility and the depth that we have this year, that’s probably what I’m most excited about.”

Wittenberg finished 19-8 and 10-4 in the North Coast Athletic Conference two years ago in coach Tamika Williams-Jeter’s one season as head coach. That team won the NCAC tournament to earn the program’s first NCAA tournament bid since 2015.

When Williams-Jeter left for the head coaching job at Dayton, Wittenberg hired Kolbe, a 1999 Wittenberg graduate, in April 2022. In her first season, the Tigers finished 21-5 and tied for the NCAC regular-season championship with a 13-1 mark but lost 63-57 to Oberlin in the NCAC semifinals.

Kolbe said the players feel their season ended abruptly and they’re motivated to get back to the NCAA tournament this season.

“When I played at Wittenberg, we had the expectation of winning the league every year,” she said, “and we won it three out of the four years that I played. Their mindset has flipped. Now that’s their expectation. There’s definitely more hunger this year. I think last year there were a lot of question marks in the beginning of the season. To see them grow and our confidence grow, we’re in a totally different space.”

Wittenberg was picked to finish second in the NCAC preseason poll. It received two of the eight first-place votes. Preseason favorite Ohio Wesleyan received the other six.

Wittenberg’s returning starters are: junior guards Taryn Cash, Jaz Gaines-Burns and Kelsey Ragan; and senior forwards Evie Wolshire and Jade Simpson. Gaines-Burns led the team in scoring (13.5 points per game). Cash led the team in assists (3.7). Simpson was the top rebounder (8.4)

Kolbe sees the ability to play inside-out on offense as a strength. She also thinks the team will be able to push the tempo and force opponents to play fast. On other hand, she sees a need to improve 3-point shooting.

“We were inconsistent at best at times last year,” Kolbe said. “For us, the beginning of the season is a gauntlet, so how we handle that and grow through that and adjust to the different people that we’re playing, I think that will be the biggest difference for us by the time we get to conference play.”

Among the newcomers are two Division I transfers: Katie Whitaker, a 6-foot-5 center who appeared in 15 games over the last two seasons at Furman; and Riane Burton, a 6-0 forward who was a freshman at Cincinnati two seasons ago when Kolbe was an assistant coach there.

Of Whitaker, Kolbe said, “With her size and athleticism, she’ll be able to impact the game in ways that most people can’t.”

Of Burton, Kolbe said, “She’s just a bigger, stronger athlete that allows us to have more versatility, and she can play multiple positions.”

About the Author