The Heart and Soul of a team

By Dylan Manfre

It is in every tweet, Instagram post, graphic, in every pregame chant. The women’s basketball players huddle and raise a fist and say “1-2-3 Heart; 4-5-6 Soul” — emphasis on the ‘oul’.

Heart and soul is the rally cry of the Broncs and in the most unusual of seasons because of the pandemic, Rider has needed a lot of it to endure the rigors playing games and sometimes not knowing when they will play next. They need heart and soul in order to cultivate a team chemistry especially since they lost valuable training in the summer and fall.

The origin of the mantra does not predate the Lynn Milligan era at Rider University but it has evolved over her tenure.

“‘Rider Heart’ was really early. I just wanted the program to build around something,” Milligan said. “Obviously, when we took over the program it wasn’t in a great spot.”

Milligan took over the program in 2007-2008, and she was right. The women’s basketball program was in shambles to say the least. Her debut season ended in a 10th place finish with an overall record of 8-22 and a 3-15 MAAC record. Milligan’s teams finished above fifth place once in her first six seasons. The outlier was in her sixth season when the Broncs finished an even 15-15, overall good enough for fourth in the MAAC.

In recent years, losing seasons had been a thing of the past by in large to eventual WNBA draftee Stella Johnson and five other 2020 seniors who launched the program into a stratosphere of its own last year. Undeniably the most talented senior class of Milligan’s tenure, it brought in the program’s first MAAC Championship which came in the most unpredictable of tournaments. The league made the difficult decision to cancel play in March 2020 because of the ongoing pandemic.

Milligan said The ‘Soul’ part was added not too long ago and thus the slogan was born. It was cultivated from a book she read called `The Soul of a Team’ authored by Tony Dungy, an esteemed NFL Hall of Fame head coach of 13 years spanning three teams who coached the Indianapolis Colts to victory in Super Bowl XLI.

“When I read the book it reminded me of us. And I’m like, ‘You know what I think this is another piece of that puzzle. [Dungy] just looks at the bigger picture. He’s a lot about the development of young men and the leadership abilities of young men and bringing teams together and all of that leading to wins instead of most people are locked in on ‘Win win win win win,’ but that there is a process to build a team and be able to do that,” Milligan said. “So that’s a lot of what the book is about, just getting into the real soul of a team.

“It just kind of fit with the pillars of our program that we already had established. It really fit well for me so I went with it. It’s really become part of our brand. Our players know the only thing I expect from them every day is their heart and soul.”

The saying resonated with the players from the moment they joined the program. Junior guard Lenaejha Evans, who transferred to Rider after playing her first two years of collegiate ball at Pensacola State College in Florida, feels grateful for the opportunity to don the cranberry and white uniforms. The phrase means a lot to her.

“Coach says ‘Only 13 people get to put on the Rider uniform right now. There’s only 13 people at Rider who can do that,’” said Evans who is averaging 5.4 points per game and is a 76% free throw shooter. “For me that means a lot because it means she sees something in me and my teammates because you wouldn’t be here if she didn’t see heart and soul. To me, heart and soul is exactly what the definition is. I have some parts of heart and soul that she sees in my teammates and me too.”

MIlligan expects the team to give their heart and soul on and off the court too. It is important for team bonding, which the team lost valuable time in since the pandemic prevented Rider from practicing in the summer and fall. Instead they settled for regular team Zoom calls and workouts when they were home. That has changed since they are all on campus together and can see each other.

“Almost once a week the team does some sort of activity. We had a Christmas-Secret Santa,” Evans said. “That helps us a lot to build chemistry because a lot of people came here not knowing each other and not getting to build the bond that you normally do over the summer.”

Follow Dylan Manfre on Twitter for the latest on the women’s basketball team.

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