On the right wall in Courtney Banghart’s office is a framed article: Fortune Magazine’s 50 Greatest Leaders from 2015. There, her name and accomplishments are listed alongside people such as Apple CEO Tim Cook, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick. Banghart’s lead of the Princeton women’s basketball team to a 30-0 regular season, and the first NCAA win in the program’s history, earned her a continuous spotlight all season long.
As a leader in the national spotlight, her abilities to guide her team are tested night in and night out. But this upcoming season could be one of the most unpredictable for her in many seasons. She is forced to handle not just a drastically changing roster but also a league continuously growing and evolving.
In Banghart’s tenure as head coach, Princeton has enjoyed many a season as the Ivy League’s top team. Starting in 2007, with a team that would go just 7-23 on the season, she has seen five first place finishes in the Ivy League in the last seven years. This year, however, was not more of the same: The University of Pennsylvania Quakers, in two of the past three seasons, have beaten the Tigers to earn the top spot.
True to character, however, Banghart could not seem to relish these newfound challenges more. Having been a part of the Ivy League basketball scene since 1996 as a player at Dartmouth, and an assistant coach at Dartmouth for four seasons before coming to Princeton, she has gotten to see the Ivy League grow deeper and deeper in talent.
“The strength of the league, it’s gotten so much better, top to bottom… The days are gone of winning by 30, and I love it,” Banghart explained. “We can be really proud of the program, [and] the players that came here to build this thing. They’ve raised the level of the Ivy League.”
She has not failed to respond to the challenges – despite losing the top spot in the Ivy League, the Tigers earned the first at-large bid to the tournament in Ivy League history. But next season poses far more questions than answers. Heading into the 2016-17 season, the Tigers lose five seniors, all of whom were large parts of Banghart’s rotation: forward Annie Tarakchian, forward Alex Wheatley, guard Michelle Miller, guard Amanda Berntsen and forward Taylor Williams.
Their impact to the team cannot be understated – the seniors were five of the top six scorers for this team (with Miller, Wheatley and Tarakchian ranking 1st, 2nd and 3rd respectively). Tarakchian, for her part, was one of the league’s top rebounders at 9.4 boards per game.
Indeed, with these players leaving, and having lost last year’s star Blake Dietrick (2015 Ivy League player of the year), Banghart will enter this year lacking her core that has seen so many struggles together. Indeed, most of her team will be underclassmen next season.
“It’s going to be different. We’re going to require some patience. How you gain experience is just by getting it,” Banghart explained. “We have to go into some battles, we have to feel that, respond to it and grow from it – regardless of the outcome.”
With this in mind, the ability of the Class of 2020 to perform immediately becomes more important than ever. Forwards Bella Alarie, Taylor Baur, Sara Lewis and Jordan Stallworth – Banghart’s newest recruiting class – will have large shoes to fill. Notable is that all four are listed as forwards; Banghart hopes that bringing in players capable of scoring in the post will offset the losses of current Tigers such as Tarakchian, Wheatley and Williams.
“It’s a very talented class, and we need them to be very good very quickly,” Banghart said.
That being said, Banghart stressed that for her, the biggest challenge will be adjusting to the fact that her players are so new. Having grown so accustomed to players with a wealth of experience and savvy, getting herself to readjust could take time.
“It’s going to be different. We’re going to require some patience. How you gain experience is just by getting it,” Banghart said. “We have to go into some battles, we have to feel that, respond to it and grow from it – regardless of the outcome.”
“We’re going to be putting a lot of people in roles they haven’t had before,” Banghart said. “And that’s exciting, because I feel like I have a great staff, and I feel like they trust me, the kids, so they’ll need me to be their leader this year, and I’m ready to do that for them.”
Banghart’s greatest asset (and indeed, what she looks for in her players) seems to be not just the ability but also the desire to take on new challenges. As the program faces uncertain times, it appears her primary focus in building this team has been to bring people that are able to take on and grow from the difficulties set before them.
“If you’re recruiting to Princeton you have to understand is that what you’re looking for is kids that embrace the challenge. Kids that are looking for the easy route shouldn’t come here.”