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A local star and 16 straight wins put CSU women's basketball on top

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: NOV 23 Women's Georgia State at Cleveland State
Frank Jansky
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Cleveland State Athletics
The Cleveland State University women's basketball team is 16-2, led by local standout Destiny Leo.

The Cleveland State University women's basketball team is on top of the Horizon League standings, thanks to a 16-game winning streak and an overlooked local star.

The Vikings are 16-2, and losing to Green Bay Saturday was the team's first loss since the first game of the season in early November.

"I don't care who you're playing [or] what league you're in. When you win 16 in a row, and you're not a traditional basketball powerhouse, and you are playing Division I, it's pretty remarkable," Ideastream Public Media commentator Terry Pluto said.

Cleveland State University women's basketball Coach Chris Kielsmeier in a huddle
Frank Jansky
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Cleveland State Athletics
Cleveland State Vikings head coach Chris Kielsmeier huddles with the Vikings during a timeout during the third quarter of the women's college basketball game between the Georgia State Panthers and Cleveland State Vikings on Nov. 23, 2022, at the Wolstein Center in Cleveland.

The team is coached by Chris Kielsmeier, who was hired in 2018 out of Wayne State in Nebraska. "Coach K" replaced Kate Peterson Abiad, who retired after 15 years. His first season was disappointing, with the team finishing 10-20. Then, he led a turnaround. The Vikings were 21-11 in 2019. Last season, they finished 21-9. He was offered a five-year contract extension last spring.

"Coach K was looking desperately to find a local player to keep at home. That's very hard at a place like Cleveland State," Pluto said.

Then Keilmseier found Destiny Leo at Eastlake North High School.

"It's not like she was some secret that nobody knew about," Pluto said. "She was runner-up to Ms. Ohio Girls Basketball."

But, Leo ended up with just two Division I offers — Detroit Mercy and Cleveland State. Pluto said Leo's family didn't want her traveling to the high-profile basketball camps in high school, so she stayed close to home and was overlooked by big-time coaches.

"Coach K told me, he said, 'I was stunned. I would go to her games and I'm saying, this girl's really good. She's certainly Division I player,'" Pluto said.

Leo made the All-Horizon League first team in 2021-22, averaging 19 points a game. She was voted the preseason Horizon League Player of the Year for this season.

Cleveland State University women's basketball Faith Burch stands holding the ball at the foul line.
Frank Jansky
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Cleveland State Athletics
Cleveland State Vikings forward Faith Burch (22) at the foul line during the first quarter of the women's college basketball game between the Bellarmine Knights and Cleveland State Vikings on Nov. 25, 2022, at the Wolstein Center in Cleveland.

The team has another local standout, Faith Burch from Warren Harding High School, a red-shirt freshman. She already is a junior academically with a 3.5-point grade point average in psychology.

The Vikings have also been heavily leaning on the transfer portal, an online database where student athletes can declare their desire to transfer to another school.

"If you're playing somewhere else and you decide that wasn't a good deal, the NCAA now allows you to transfer once without sitting out," Pluto said.

That's how CSU got their second-leading scorer, Brittni Moore, from University of Tennessee at Martin.

"She wanted to go into nursing. Of course, now think about Cleveland. What a place to go into nursing," Pluto said. "Now, if she wants to go to another school, she has to sit out. So if you take somebody out the transfer portal, odds are that player will probably stick with you."

The CSU women next play Friday night against Wright State University. They have a rematch against Green Bay Feb. 23.

Amanda Rabinowitz is the host of “All Things Considered” on Ideastream Public Media.