Head Coach Chaia Huff
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When the Women’s Basketball coaching job opened up in the summer of the 2016, many things attracted Chaia Huff in wanting to be the next leader of the program. The city of Madison and an outstanding academic school were high on that list, but so too was one other thing: a chance to rebuild.
In Huff’s previous stops, beginning with an assistant coaching position at fellow NACC school Dominican University (2007-2009), she had always faced a rebuild. She was attracted to having another chance at rebuilding a program and Edgewood College offered that, among many other things.
“I love to rebuild,” stated Huff when she was recalling her draw to Edgewood College. “When I came here I knew it would be that, I had an awareness that it would be a rebuild.”
Of course, Huff didn’t imagine just how much of a rebuild it would be. Hired in August of 2016, there was no time to recruit for the 2016-17 season. That transition played a big role in a difficult first season for Edgewood College; 25 losses, and no wins for the program. Still, when facing the challenge of rebuilding, you want someone like Chaia Huff.
Even Huff, who knew the program needed work, did not expect the challenge she would face in her first season. Very quickly Huff realized that while the Eagles had several dedicated players, they probably needed to up their game to compete in many of their contests.
The Eagles ended the year winless, but it allowed to Huff to realize exactly what she needed to do to get the program back on track. She would need to create the culture of the program and find the right players to recruit, players who lived Basketball and who could “buy in” to the culture she envisioned.
“We knew we had to get better players and we had to get kids who, as part of how they defined themselves, is they play basketball,” Huff said. “We recruited all the time and we felt if we were going to recruit anybody to Edgewood College off a winless season our faces needed to be in front of them. They needed to know us and believe in us.”
Recruiting was a big part of what Huff and her staff needed to do and the ability to offer playing time surely helped that. However, Huff also knew they needed to fix the culture of the program as well if they were going to turn this thing around.
“We had a bit of a revolving door culture and Madison can certainly add to that,” said Huff. “If you’re not committed and it’s not in your heart, you aren’t going to stay four years here.”
One player who did stay four years and who was a member of that winless team was Allison Gordon ‘19, the only player to be on all three of Huff’s rosters as a head coach. Gordon credits Huff for the turnaround, knowing she was the right person for the job. Still after the first season, Gordon almost didn’t come back. But part of Huff’s promises about the program were starting to come true heading into year two.
The Eagles roster looked incredibly different heading into the second season, with 12 players on the team, including 10 freshmen. Only Gordon and Morgan Michaels returned from the winless season, and Gordon was very close to not returning.
Actually, that wasn’t a new feeling, Gordon says. Huff’s persistence helped get Gordon on board for her first year, but after a difficult season, Gordon was again on the fence about playing basketball. Her enthusiastic head coach promised players were coming. Still, Gordon felt her time with the Eagles was a lot of empty promises, and she remained skeptical.
“She turned around my playing and my thinking about playing and she promised she would get us some players,” Gordon said on that offseason with Huff.
Still, Gordon felt these were just more promises that may not come true. That’s until a summer league game Huff convinced her to attend. Gordon saw these promises, ones that before went empty, were finally being delivered.
“I went to the last summer league game and after playing with some of the players she recruited I couldn’t wait for the next season,” Gordon said. “I haven’t had that excitement since my junior year of high school.”
One of those players Gordon saw was Diamond Pikulyk, from Addison, Illinois. Pikulyk remembers being recruited by Huff, with talk of creating a legacy, and being a part of something special.
“Coach really sold us on being a part of something,” Pikulyk said. “She said people would remember us for coming in and making our impact on the program.”
The Eagles finished the 2017-18 season with 11 wins, the fourth-highest turnaround in the nation. More importantly they competed with several of the top teams in the conference, including sweeping Concordia University Chicago, a moment Huff remembers as a big one for her program.
“We beat CUC twice, a team that was second or third in the conference all season,” an excited Huff recalled. “I always ask my players to tell me their most memorable moment so far and every single one of them lists those CUC games.”
The wins and the turnaround helped Huff and her staff on the recruiting trail heading into her third season where she would bring in another talented class. However, she noticed she was also starting to expand her criteria for recruiting: finding student-athletes from winning programs.
Huff brought in several new players to the team heading into year three and many of those had state tournament experience. Being able to attract basketball players who were used to winning and who could bring that to Edgewood College was vital heading into year three.
The third year was another significant improvement for the Eagles: they opened the season with a 4-0 record, a first in program history. With two solid recruiting classes, and senior Gordon, the Eagles went 14-11 and only missed out on the conference tournament due to a tiebreaker. On the season, they swept Lakeland University, a team that finished second in the NACC that year.
While the Eagles have experienced a lot of success over the past couple of seasons, they know the rebuild isn’t over. After narrowly missing in the 2018-19 season, this team wants to get back to the conference tournament, and they want to help build a championship program. Both Gordon and Pikulyk know it can be done.
“In the definition of a good coach, Coach Huff is a good coach,” Gordon said. “She’s loyal, she’s caring, and she will do anything to make you better. She’ll go in on her lunch hour and shoot with you for 30 minutes, she wants to get you better, and she wants to make you a good person.”
“She is honest, super caring, passionate, and very competitive,” Pikulyk said. “She didn’t have to take this job, but she wanted to, she wanted to rebuild.”
Huff is quick to credit assistant coaches Mackenzie Reese and Reggie Patterson for helping turn the program around. Both see her vision and are willing to hit the recruiting trail as often as she does.
So what’s next for a program that has made a winless season now three years ago seem distant?
The immediate goal on everyone’s mind is to get this program back to the NACC Tournament.
“My team was very disappointed last year, and we still are, we are in pain about it,” Huff said. “We wanted to make that tournament and we felt we should have, but we didn’t get it done.”
Huff’s fourth season, the 2019-20 campaign, will feature another strong recruiting class. The Eagles feel they can not only reach the NACC Tournament, but compete with the best teams in the conference, they know their ultimate goal is to reach being a championship-level program.