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With a brand new coaching staff, an experienced cast of returnees and a talented group of newcomers, the Lakeland College women's basketball team hopes its can create a recipe for success for the 2007-08 season.
The Muskies will look to move forward after last season's 15-11 (12-7 NAC) finish, a year that marked the first year since 1995 that the Muskies did not appear in a conference tournament championship game.
"I would definitely like to improve on last year's mark," said Teri Johnson, who returns to her alma mater to begin her first season as Lakeland's head coach after spending the last two seasons at the helm at MacMurray. "I know it was our first year in a new and definitely a more competitive conference, but I would like to see us continue with the success and tradition of the program."
Restoring the program to the standards set by that tradition, which has included 12 conference championships in the former Lake Michigan Conference since 1986 and five NCAA Tournament appearances since 1998, will certainly be a big challenge in the rugged Northern Athletics Conference.
However, the Muskies return three starters and several reserves that made big impacts on the court last season. Those three starters, senior guard/forward Brenda Paulson (Clayton/Clayton) and sophomore guards KC Blahnik (Gladstone, Mich./Gladstone) and Megan Chart (Burlington/Waterford Union), will be counted on to continue to lead the squad both on and off the court. The team's other senior, Allison Komaromy (Algonquin, Ill./Dundee Crown), will also be looked to for leadership and poise in the point guard position.
"Allison, Megan and Brenda have definitely been leaders since last season and have helped keep everyone motivated during the off-season," Johnson said. "I also expect Kasey Gussert to step up and help lead the group both on and off the court, and she has done that. I have also talked to KC Blahnik about stepping up and making an impact in a 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."
Blahnik leads the returnees in scoring and rebounding with 6.3 points per game and 5.6 rebounds per game, followed by Paulson with 6.1 ppg and 3.3 rpg. Gussert (Kingsford, Mich./Kingsford) is the squad's lone junior returnee, and had a break-out campaign in 2006-07 after limited action as a freshman. She became one of the squad's most reliable shooters from the 3-point line as the season progressed, finishing at 36.1 percent.
Although Chart suffered a season-ending knee injury during the final week of last season, she has made an impressive recovery and will be key to the Muskies' success this year as the starting point guard. She dished out a team-high 58 assists last season and came in second in steals with 26.
One big question the Muskies will have to answer is how they will compensate for the loss of All-NAC forwards Jenna Boehm and Danielle Duranceau. The duo led the team in scoring and rebounding last year, combining for 24.3 ppg and 12.8 ppg, while Duranceau was also the team leader in steals (35) and blocks (29).
"I have some anxiety over who is going to fill that post position because Danielle and Jenna did great things down low, and Danielle was also a great perimeter shooter," Johnson said. "What counters that is 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, and hopefully that will lead to lots of turnovers from our opponents. We want to use our speed and aggressiveness in the guard position to our advantage."
The Muskies will supplement their experienced returnees in the guard position with a pair of talented transfers, senior Peggy Keiper (Stalwart, Mich./Pickford) and sophomore Katie Peters (Mischicot/Mischicot). Keiper played two successful seasons at Lake Michigan College (Benton Harbor, Mich.), and is expected to crack the starting line-up right away.
"Peggy Keiper is just an outstanding athlete and someone that I think can fill not only the guard position, but also maybe see some time underneath the basket in the four or five position," Johnson said. "I really like what she can do with her back to the basket, as well as out on the perimeter."
Peters returns to the hardcourt after attending UW-Milwaukee last year, and will likely contend for minutes based, in part, on her defensive aggressiveness.
"Katie Peters has been out of basketball for a year, but you can't really tell," Johnson said. "She has come in and really stepped it up and has meshed well with our program."
Sophomore returnees Emily Agner (Kenosha/Bradford) and DeAnna Rettschlag (Juneau/Dodgeland) will also be counted on for playing time in the post after filling back-up roles last season.
"The door is completely wide open for our sophomore post players," Johnson said. "We need somebody to fill that four or five spot, we're just waiting for someone to step up. Jenna Boehm left a huge gap in our program at that position that we need to fill, so any of those sophomores can step into that starting role."
Five other sophomores, including guards Nikki Commons (Bonduel/Bonduel), Terra Hiben (Boyceville/Boyceville) and Sara Mallion (Manitowoc/Lincoln) and forwards Kayla Moffatt (Greenfield/Whitnall) and Katie Kilton (Waukesha/West), will push for court time. Commons and Hiben showed flashes of being 3-point threats off the bench last season, while Mallion joins the roster after acting as team manager her freshman year.
Three freshmen round out the Muskies roster: guards Mary Dennewitz (Chicago, Ill./Lane Tech) and Whitney Diedrich (Hilbert/Hilbert), and forward Rachael Weber (Crivitz/Crivitz). All three have already made positive impressions on the coaching staff, and have indicated their abilities to contribute early on.
"One person that has really gotten my attention is Mary Dennewitz," Johnson said. "She is an aggressive point guard, and can also play some two or three guard for us. She handles the ball nicely, and will be able to back up Megan and Allison at point guard and also flip-flop time with other guards. She is one of those freshmen that just has that knack for the game of basketball, which is sometimes hard to come by.
"Whitney Diedrich is making her name known on the defensive end, and Rachael Weber has been doing some good things in practice and has the ability to develop into a pretty solid player."
Lakeland will also look to revamp its offense into a more fast-paced game to take advantage of its speed, depth and experience at the guard position.
"I like to run an up-tempo type of game, but our up-tempo approach will come from our aggressiveness on the defensive end, hopefully from steals leading to a quick score," Johnson said.
The Muskies know they have a lot of work to do if they want to climb back into the upper echelons of the NAC ranks, as Lakeland was picked to finish sixth in the conference according to the preseason coaches' poll.
"I would like to be at the top of the conference in defense, and our shooting percentage needs to improve from last year," Johnson said. "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."
However, the squad's top NAC opponents will not make things easy on the Muskies, as two of the top three teams in the preseason poll return four starters from last year, and many other squads return their top threats as well.
"Wisconsin Lutheran returns a lot of starters, so they are at the top of my list," Johnson said. "Concordia, Wis., is tough coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance last year, and Benedictine could be difficult for us to match up with. However, we can't overlook anybody because this is a tough conference and everyone is a threat right now."
Lakeland's non-conference schedule could help prepare the Muskies for a tough NAC campaign. The Muskies open their season with Lakeland's annual "Play with Grace" Coaches vs. Cancer Tip-Off Tournament on Nov. 16-17, which includes Augustana College (Rock Island, Ill.), Ripon College and Northland College. The Muskies will also face another tough non-conference opponent in Carroll College, ranked No. 25 by the Women's DIII News preseason poll, on Nov. 27.
"I think that we have a pretty tough first half of the season," Johnson said. "We have three games the week after Thanksgiving, starting at Carroll, followed by Edgewood and Concordia, Wis. Right there is going to be a very tough week. I think playing Carroll will hopefully get us prepared for those games against Edgewood and Concordia.
"I am very grateful that we have a run of five home games from Dec. 31 through Jan. 17, so we have to be smart and use that to our advantage. We open up with a lot of the top teams in our conference, so we can't take that for granted."
Johnson is also working to make the transition from the old coaching staff to the new one as seamless as possible in order to take steps forward this season, which has been aided in part by having solid, willing leadership coming from several players.
"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. "I think our seniors and upperclassmen have done a good job of leading our younger ones, and will continue that role throughout the year. At the same time, I expect some of our younger players to step up and also be leaders right away this season."