When new coach Jonathan Tsipis first met the George Washington University women’s basketball team in April, he pulled three players aside.
Absegami High School graduates Tara Booker and Sara Mostafa were going to be fifth-year seniors, along with teammate Brooke Wilson, and Tsipis wanted them to know that his intention was to make the Colonials a winning team before they left. He wanted them to be leaders, not lame ducks on a rebuilding team.
“He doesn’t want this to be like, ‘Oh, new coach, new team, this is a building year and this is a year for experimenting,” Booker said in a phone interview last week. “It’s right now.”
Few first-year coaches inherit a duo such as Booker and Mostafa. The Galloway Township residents have played together since they were 10. They have a handshake that they’ve been doing before games since seventh grade. The pair won two state championships and four South Jersey titles at Absegami, with Booker earning Press Player of the Year honors three times.
Booker has been a starter since her freshman year at GW and averaged 12 points and seven rebounds last season. She is sixth in school history with 162 career 3-pointers and was named to the preseason all-conference third team in the Atlantic 10 this season.
Mostafa has started since her sophomore year and averaged 9.8 points and 5.9 rebounds in eight games last year before getting hurt.
Booker and Mostafa both got medical-hardship waivers from the NCAA to play a fifth year. Booker, a 6-foot-1 guard/forward, missed 20 games her sophomore year due to her right knee, which has undergone several surgeries and no longer has any cartilage. Mostafa, a 6-5 center, missed the last 21 games last season after fracturing her left hand.
Both likely could have transferred since they graduated. NCAA rules allow postgraduate players to transfer without sitting out a year. But despite having a new coach, Booker and Mostafa both said they never considered leaving.
“Last year I didn’t get done what I wanted to accomplish,” Mostafa said. “It was my senior year, and I wanted to go out with a bang. … Knowing that we were getting a new coach was almost like a completely new opportunity.”
Tsipis, who turns 40 on Wednesday, spent the past nine seasons as an assistant at Notre Dame, helping the Fighting Irish reach the national championship game each of the past two seasons.
Tsipis’ task at GW is to return the Colonials to the level they were at when Booker and Mostafa decided to go there. Coach Joe McKeown led GW to at least 20 wins in 17 of his last 18 seasons before leaving for Northwestern in 2008. The Colonials reached the NCAA tournament Sweet 16 in his final season, losing to Rutgers.
But GW went 42-75 in the next four years under Mike Bozeman, whose contract was not renewed this year. The Colonials were 11-18 last season, 4-10 in the Atlantic 10.
This season is the last chance for Booker and Mostafa to bring the team back to where it once was.
“We joke with them,” Tsipis said, “you know, back, like, 12 years ago when they first started here at GW … they came in when GW was a top-25 program.”
Mostafa, 22, and Booker, who turned 23 last month, hear plenty of jokes.
“They call us old ladies,” Mostafa said. “You know, it takes us a little longer to get warmed up than everybody else. We’ll bring back gear from, like, 2008. It’s like, where does that even come from?”
They haven’t felt old all the time, though. Having a new coach meant learning a whole new system and new philosophy.
“It was strange at first because we’ve been here for four years (and are) fifth-year seniors, so we should be experts and have the program down to a T right now,” Booker said. “But it’s kind of like you’re relearning everything again. Instead of four freshmen, like, everybody on our team became a freshman again.”
They haven’t fought it, either. Booker and Mostafa are excited to play Tsipis’ fast-paced style, and the respect what he helped Notre Dame accomplish. Mostafa said they made that clear on that first day that they met him.
“(We said) we’re ready to let go of the past and to just fully embrace what he has for us and that we were completely ready to buy into his system,” Mostafa said.
Booker is earning her Master’s degree in Organizational Sciences and Communications with a focus in Business Management. Mostafa is earning hers in Environmental Health, Science and Policy.
Both said they hope to play professionally overseas if they can. But this year is about more than just auditioning for pro teams.
“I challenged them with their legacy,” Tsipis said. “I expect for us to be competitive and for us to be good and for us to do it this year.”
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