By Greg Gielczyk

TOLEDO–As the starting point guard for the Toledo University women’s basketball team, junior point guard Sophia Wiard was out front quarterbacking the Rockets’ offense.

Her leadership this past season helped the Rockets capture the Mid-American Conference regular season title and a spot in the WNIT.

Wiard, a finance major and a graduate from Oakridge,  averaged 12.6 points a game with 31 steals, 10 blocked shots and 99 assists this season as the Division 1 Rockets compiled a 19-1 record in the MAC. The team set a league record  for most conference wins in a season.

The Rockets’ season ended with a 73-71 overtime loss to Middle Tennessee in the WNIT quarterfinals in Toledo on Monday, March 28. Toledo finished  29-6 and tied a school record for wins in a season (2010-11, 2012-13).

After playing before sparse crowds, basically just friends and family, last year because of the COVID pandemic, Wiard said it was quite a jump to have close to 5,000 fans for games this year.

Photo courtesy of the University of Toledo Athletic Dept.

“Last year we had fake noise,” said Wiard, the daughter of Joel and Renee Wiard. “They were literally playing background noise for us. It was like going to an open gym. At the Division 1 level, you’re looking forward to play in front of a big crowd.

“This year was just so much fun, playing before big crowds again. We had a really good year.”

Wiard finished 16th in scoring and second in assists in the conference, while leading the league in assists-to-turnover ratio for the second straight season.

Last year, as a sophomore, Wiard tied a school record with 42 points at Northern Illinois and scored in double digits in 17 games. She also had 10-plus rebounds twice.

Toledo head coach Tricia Cullop, who completed her 13th year at the Rockets helm, says Wiard is a tremendous leader, and takes incredible care of the basketball.

“She’s played 40 minutes before where she’s had zero turnovers,” said Cullop, who has guided the Rockets to one MAC championship and two MAC regular season titles.

“Just an unbelievable talent. Great IQ, tremendous teammate (and) wonderful leader. She can do it all. She can score, she can handle (the ball), she can pass. A tremendous player.”

The Rockets have hung eight postseason banners in Cullop’s time stalking the coach’s box, including a 2011 postseason WNIT championship.

Cullop has compiled a 255-140 overall record during her time guiding the Midnight Blue and Gold, including a 134-72 ledger in the conference. The 255 wins is the most in program history.

Photo courtesy of the University of Toledo Athletic Dept.

Wiard has clearly upheld that tradition of excellence for the Rockets.

“(Sophia) is not only an incredible player, but her teammates absolutely love her,” Cullop said. “They follow her lead, because she gives her heart and soul to them.

“What I also love about her is that she’s extremely coachable, but in the offseason she works her tail off. She’s busy around (her) home working with a personal trainer, and trying to get better.

“And she just loves the game, and plays with great joy. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed coaching her. I’m so glad she’s our point guard.

“I not only like to have great players, but strong character kids. She comes from a great family. She’s a straight A student. She’s just a wonderful kid, a wonderful person and a wonderful human being.”

Toledo started two juniors including Wiard, a freshman and two sophomores and they’ll all be coming back next year.

Photo courtesy of the University of Toledo Athletic Dept.

“We learned a lot this year,” Wiard said. “I think the fact we’ve been together so long helped this year.

My sophomore year we started two freshmen and three sophomores. We finished 12-12 that year.

“I think we just kept staying the course, grinding, and then obviously coach Cullop brought in some really good recruits from the transfer portal, and they all accepted the process. We were working hard all summer.

“Off the court we were always doing stuff together, too. We’re not forced to do anything together, but those are my 16 sisters. I don’t have many friends outside of them. I would much rather hang out with them.”

After playing 15 minutes a game behind a point guard who is now playing overseas, Wiard learned her lessons and gradually settled into the college game.

The 5-foot-9 point guard started all 24 games last year, averaging 13.7 points (second on the team), 5.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists (first on the team) a game.

Photo courtesy of the University of Toledo Athletic Dept.

It took time, though.

“Division 1 basketball is a whole different world,” Wiard said. “I definitely learned a lot, even during my freshman year learning from the senior.

“My sophomore year I played about 39 minutes a game, and that brought a lot of experience underneath my belt, too. This year, everybody I started with is so good, and everybody off the bench is so good.

“It makes me look pretty good, too. I’m passing the ball, and they’re sinking shots. I have to give them kudos, too. They’re giving me a lot of assists.

“Point guard is a lot of responsibility, but I love it. I enjoy it.”

As Cullop said, Wiard works hard in the summer working with her personal trainer on her skill development and, obviously, ball handling.

But, she believes basketball IQ is most important of all, and that comes with age and experience.

“My freshman year, my head was under water and I was just trying to find my way through,” Wiard added. “Once you start to learn the game a little bit more, I think that’s one of the most vital parts for a point guard.

“Especially at the Division 1 level. The game is starting to slow down a little bit, I’m starting to understand and see things better. Even my sophomore year it was like ‘Okay, what do I have to do just to survive.'”

She’s done more than survive in her role as point guard. She’s thriving running the show.

Cullop says that Wiard loves facilitating on the break.

“She’s wonderful at running our offense, and making sure that people get the ball at the right times,” Cullop added. “She’ll run through the wall for you.

“Unfortunately, she got hurt in our Marquette game. She got hit pretty hard. She had blood coming out of her mouth, her teeth were shoved up in her gums.

“After the game she had to get six stitches in her lip, and she was begging to go back in the game. That says who she is. She will do anything for her teammates, no matter how she feels.”

Cullop added that Wiard is the heart and soul of the team. Best of all, she’ll be back for another season.

Wiard and Cullop hope that next year the Rockets can earn that elusive bid to the NCAA’s.

Photo courtesy of the University of Toledo Athletic Dept.

Photo courtesy of the University of Toledo Athletic Dept.

Photo courtesy of the University of Toledo Athletic Dept.