Improvement first, wins to come for Mastodons Nelson sees bright spots after first season in Fort Wayne.

Neicee Nelson used the word “kaizen” throughout her first season coaching the Fort Wayne Mastodons women’s basketball team.

It’s a word with Japanese roots meaning “continuous improvement,” and she used it to stress how important it was for her players to take every day, every play, and make it better than the one before.

Satisfaction and signs of progress weren’t coming in wins. Fort Wayne finished 5-24 (2-14 in the Summit League) and failed to make the conference tournament. To outsiders, that’s failure. But Nelson emphasized “kaizen” and she saw it, even if it wasn’t readily apparent on the scoreboard.

“It was a year of minor victories,” Nelson said. “Our win-loss record isn’t going to reflect that, but there’s a bigger picture, and our staff did a really good job keeping that in perspective.”

Nelson, who came to the program after 11 years as an assistant at the University of San Diego, inherited a young team and not a necessarily physically blessed one. She added two late recruits, Anna Lappenkuper from Herne, Germany, and Hanna Hess from Oregon, Ohio. Lappenkuper became a starter. Hess sat out the season with a torn meniscus and a fracture in her foot.

Fort Wayne had two seniors, Rachel Rinehart and Selena Lozada, and junior KeShyra McCarver, but after some departures, Nelson had a roster primarily filled with underclassmen and little experience.

It was close to starting from scratch, and that was evident on the court.

“When we started the year, we averaged 22-23 turnovers a game, resulting in 21-22 points for the other team in transition,” Nelson said. “You can’t win ballgames like that. When we started cleaning that up, we celebrated.

“We started out the year losing the rebounding battle. Defense and rebounding wins championships,” she continued. “We had a four-game streak where we won the rebounding battle. We celebrated that.”

As they celebrated small strides, Nelson and her staff worked to maintain a positive attitude and to change a culture.

She had seen this before. When she joined the staff at San Diego, it faced a similar situation, trying to build a program after years of losing seasons.

Nelson was a bit taken aback at where she had to start.

“Two things you don’t want to coach are attitude and effort. Those are two things you can control and bring every day,” Nelson said. “The surprising thing is we did have to coach those things.”

The progress was evident to Nelson and her staff, even if it wasn’t to outsiders. When the season began, she said her players would put a quarter’s worth of all-out effort into a game. Then it increased to two quarters, and grew from there.

There were games where they started fast, seized a lead, but as soon as the opponent countered, or a lead evaporated, the Mastodons would hang their heads.

“Our struggle all year was getting them to work hard for 40 minutes,” Nelson said.

One high point was the Mastodons’ 65-62 win over Omaha on Jan. 25 at Gates Center. It was Fort Wayne’s only win over a team that finished the regular season with a winning record. The Mastodons jumped out to an 18-8 first-quarter lead and came back in the fourth quarter to seal the win. Four players (De’Jour Young, Zaria Atkins, Rinehart and Lappenkuper) scored in double figures and the Mastodons committed only nine turnovers.

“That Omaha win was awesome,” Nelson said. “They finally felt what it was like to jump on a team and keep that up. We came out, got a large lead, we were ready to go. Omaha battled back, took the lead. We fought back and toward the end had to make big plays and fight through it.”

As Nelson acknowledges, when a team finishes last in the conference, there is only one way to go. She’s optimistic that continued improvement will come. While she has only one official incoming freshman – Southport’s 6-foot-2 Jaelencia Williams, who averaged 15.7 points and 9.3 rebounds as a senior – others will be added. Nelson might also bring some junior-college talent.

“This year was about establishing that culture, with a lot of patience,” Nelson said. “Patience and positivity were two really key things as a coaching staff we had to keep in mind, and teach the players to have with each other.”

The makeup of the team will look different next season, no doubt, but the emphasis on kaizen will remain.