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The Lakeland College women's basketball team will begin its season this weekend in the annual "Play with Grace" Coaches vs. Cancer Tip-Off Tournament.
The Muskies will begin play on Friday with Augustana College (Rock Island, Ill.), a member of the tough College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin, at 6 p.m. Ripon College and Northland College are also in the tournament, and will face off at 8 p.m.
Friday's winners will play Saturday at 4 p.m. in the championship game. Friday's losers will play at 2 p.m. on Saturday.
Lakeland has not faced Augustana in many years, but with both teams fighting to begin their respective seasons on the right foot, it could be either squad's game to win.
Although the Vikings finished with a 4-21 mark last season and were picked to finish last in the CCIW preseason poll this year, their conference is full of talent from top to bottom, which could make things interesting for the Muskies. Augustana returns its top scorer and rebounder from last season, Maegan Skahill (10.0 ppg, 5.6 rpg), who will combine her talents with other returning contributors, Becky Rehn and Sarah Rachwalski.
First-year Lakeland head coach Teri Johnson, who served as an assistant at Augustana from 2002-05, is excited to see her new team in action on the court with high expectations of her squad.
"I would definitely like to improve on last year's mark," said Johnson, as the Muskies went 13-9 in 2006-07 under former head coach April Arvan, the winningest coach in the program's history. "I would like to be at the top of the conference in defense, and our shooting percentage needs to improve from last year. I see that as a challenge because we are losing two of our top scorers from last year, so we need to focus on getting high percentage shots in the paint and be patient on offense to get high-quality looks at the basket. I would like to see us continue with the success and tradition of the program."
Those two top scorers, Jenna Boehm and Danielle Duranceau, were All-Northern Athletics Conference Team standouts in the post for the Muskies last season, combining for 22.3 ppg and 12.8 rpg.
The absence of the pair in the post has left a gap in Lakeland's offensive scheme, and a big question mark of how to fill the scoring void.
"I have some anxiety over who is going to fill that post position," Johnson said. "What counters that is that I think we have some very talented, quick players in the guard position, which makes me think we can get after it defensively. Defense is going to be our staple this year."
Lakeland returns three players with experience as starters, including senior guard Brenda Paulson and sophomore guards KC Blahnik, a member of the NAC All-Rookie team, and Megan Chart. Chart led the team in assists with 58 and was second in steals with 26 last season, while Blahnik and Paulson lead the returning squad in scoring with 6.3 and 6.1 ppg, respectively.
"Allison (Komaromy), Megan and Brenda have definitely been leaders since last season, and have helped keep everyone motivated during the off-season," Johnson said. "I have also talked to KC Blahnik about stepping up and making an impact at the leadership role this year. She is such a well-rounded athlete, and we have to expect big things out of her on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor."
Junior guards Kasey Gussert and transfer Peggy Keiper will likely see time on the perimeter, as Gussert had some break-out performances late last season to lead the squad in two games, finishing at 36.1 percent from behind the arc, while Keiper has shown her shooting touch early on. A host of sophomores and a pair of freshmen will round out the young squad, and will look to bring balance to the rotation.
Lakeland will have either Northland or Ripon to contend with on Saturday, pending the results of Friday's games. Both had sub-.500 records in 2006-07, but Northland returns 11 players from last season, nine of which have seen significant court time. Ripon loses about 30 ppg and 14 rpg from last year's squad, but welcomes five freshmen, two of which are listed at six feet tall, in addition to eight returning sophomores, one junior and two seniors, making for a largely youthful roster.
"I think Northland is going to be pretty good this year compared to past years," Johnson said. "Ripon had a down year last year, but Julie Johnson is such a good coach that I think she can turn things around."
Two of Northland's freshmen, Chelsea Lundgren and Lindsey Hamm, were the only first-year players to be named to the All-Upper Midwest Athletic Conference team, with Lundgren leading the team with 13.2 ppg and 6.9 rpg. Lundgren was also named the UMAC Newcomer of the Year, and was one of the five members of the All-Defensive Team. Hamm also returns with a scoring punch for the LumberJills, as she averaged 11.3 ppg and 4.0 rpg off the bench last season.
Ripon's two seniors, Christina Schneider and Tiffany Goebel, will be expected to step into major leadership roles this season, and each will likely see time at the point guard position. Jessica DeHamer returns as the Red Hawks' remaining high-scorer from last season, as she put up 7.7 ppg and grabbed 4.8 boards per game. Amanda Lindauer and Jeni Yaeger round out the returning group of consistent scorers, combining for 8.9 ppg and 5.2 rpg last year. Lindauer also led the team in both field goal percentage (.478) and 3-point shooting (.500) last season.
Johnson hopes to get out any of the remaining kinks on Friday in order to make the transition between coaches as smooth as possible.
"Right now the new ones are getting used to the whole program, the older ones are getting used to me and I'm getting used to all of them, so we're breaking things down a lot to make sure we're all on the same page," Johnson said.
Please click here for more Tip-Off Tournament details and for updated results throughout the weekend.