Emma Meesseman senses something different about this year’s Washington Mystics. The players are more eager to start playing, she says, and there’s a restlessness in the air that didn’t exist that last time she played in D.C. in 2017—the year before she sat out the WNBA season to play for Belgium at the 2018 FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup tournament.
Reaching the WNBA Finals can do that to a team.
“I can feel they were in the finals last year ’cause everybody’s ready to start already and trying to prove that we can win this and just take that last step to get that ring,” Meesseman says.
The Mystics officially began their training camp this week and confidence brimmed from every corner of the team’s new home: the 4,200-seat Entertainment and Sports Arena in Ward 8.
A day prior to meeting with the media on May 6, players and team staff got together for a Cinco de Mayo party where coaches played a video of last year’s WNBA Finals. The players got to relive the achievement of making it to the championship, but also the crushing reality of being swept in three games by the Seattle Storm.
“It was kind of good to get that feeling again of that pit in your stomach of not wanting that to ever happen again,” says Elena Delle Donne, one of the team’s undisputed leaders. “I think everybody is super rejuvenated, excited to start practice … and get back out there and have a different result.”
With several top WNBA players, like Breanna Stewart and Maya Moore, sitting out of the league this season, the Mystics are the odds-on favorite to win the title. Washington returns a stacked core roster of veteran players, including Delle Donne, a former league MVP, Kristi Toliver, and Natasha Cloud, while welcoming back Meesseman and adding promising rookies.
Players say they are embracing their role as the hunted.
“I like it,” Delle Donne says. “It means you’re good. You don’t always want to be that underdog. You want to know that you’ve earned being at the top and that people are coming for you. I think that’s a good position to be in.”
“I mean I think that’s why we know this year is gonna be tougher than last year because there is a difference when you’re climbing the mountain top and when you’re high on the mountain top,” adds Toliver. “I love it. I want everyone’s best game, and I think we’ll get that.”
Toliver, in her third season with the Mystics, spent the off-season as an assistant coach with the Wizards, living out a dream that began several decades ago in Virginia. She traveled with the team, cut up video clips, and helped out the Wizards’ player development staff.
Mystics coach Mike Thibault expects Toliver to play an even larger mentoring role this season.
“I think it’s been noticeable already just in preseason workouts that her confidence is at an all-time level high,” he says. “Her ability to talk to her teammates both on and off the court has changed. She’s, for a lack of a better term, a little more chatty with everybody, coaches included. I told her that there’s going to be lessons she’s learned in the NBA that she can bring back.”
Toliver says she started getting the itch to play again right after the NBA All-Star break in mid-February. And that’s also when she began repeating the team’s motto this season—“run it back”—in her head.
“That was what I was saying every single day this offseason when I was working out because I couldn’t let those three games go against Seattle,” Toliver says. “I still haven’t. I won’t … We have unfinished business and we’re very, very motivated to get back to where we were last year.”
“I’m ready to go kick some ass,” she adds with a smirk.
The Mystics will again be without Meesseman for about a month this season when she leaves to play in the FIBA Women’s EuroBasket 2019 tournament in early June. The words “finals” have come up repeatedly, but Meesseman cautions against looking too far ahead.
“For me personally, it’s just reaching the playoffs,” she says of the team’s goals. “If we don’t do that, there’s no finals to talk about. I’m [the] kind of person [who] obviously takes everything … step by step. Let’s have a good training camp, get better as a team, get used to each other again, and try to win game by game, and we’ll see, and just get better the whole season, and if we get to the playoffs, go as far as possible.”
But for other players, anything less than a repeat to the WNBA Finals would be hard to accept.
“I think last year coming in, we knew we was a good team but I think nobody else thought we would make it to the WNBA Finals, and so this year we’re kinda coming out with a little chip on our shoulders,” says seventh-year forward Lotoya Sanders. “Obviously we didn’t like the way the finals ended but we’re still grateful for the experience and we’re going to use it as a learning step. And I mean we want to get back there. I think everybody is coming in a little bit more focused and know that’s our ultimate goal and anything below that for us would be a disappointment.”