ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
Tabor women’s coach Rusty Allen thought his recruiting efforts would make his team stronger this year-and early indication are that he’s right.
Through six games games, the Bluejays are 3-3 on the season. But more important, they’ve already demonstrated they are significantly deeper at some critical positions heading into the start of conference play this weekend.
“Gaining height was our primary objective,” said Allen, whose team finished 13-16 in his first season at the helm. “We wanted not just height, but quality height. The other goal was to increase our depth on the perimeter athletically.”
“I just feel blessed that I think we accomplished that.”
The recruit making the biggest impact so far is Casey Stucky, a 6-1 transfer from Hutchinson Community College. She’s averaged more than 12 points through the team’s first five games and has been force in the paint.
“She has good quickness and strength and her skills are solid as well,” Allen said. “She can do a lot of things, but the thing that probably has made the most difference is just her physical presence.
“Defensively, she really makes it tough on whomever she’s guarding,” he said. “Offensively, she can score some, but even if she doesn’t because they double-team her, she’s loosening things up for other people.”
Another juco transfer who has shown flashes of brilliance is LaTasha Townsend, a 6-0 post who hails from Winona, Miss.
“She came in with a whole lot to learn, but she has such a great attitude about it,” Allen said. “The last couple of weeks, we’ve seen a lot of nice things start to happen.
“She got a great touch around the basket. She jumps really well and can block some shots with her height.”
Around the perimeter, newcomers Erica Hemmert and Trixsi Rodriguez have made the most impact. Hemmert, a 5-7 freshman from WaKeeney, has averaged more than 15 points a game so far.
“We knew we were getting a good player, but so far she’s been even better than I expected,” Allen said. “I think the credit goes to her work ethic. She puts in extra time on her own and just loves to play the game. She does a lot of things well on both ends of the court.”
Rodrigues, a 5-5 Larned native, has added depth at point-guard.
“She has really good quickness and ball-handling skills,” Allen said. “She’s very competitive and is a true point guard. She has a good-looking shot, but doesn’t really look to shoot it much.”
Also in his recruiting class of 11 freshmen are Shannon Kroeker and Jill Hein, two former Hillsboro Trojans who have already seen significant varsity time since joining the team after the conclusion of volleyball.
“Shannon’s 5-11 and can play the wing. She shoots well, understands the game, and picks things up quickly.
“Jill is just a really good basketball player. She’s a natural. She’s quick and strong and sees the court so well.
“I think we’re really fortunate to get both of those to stay at home.”
Also expected to contribute at the varsity level as freshmen are Stephanie Stuber, a 5-3 guard who was a member of a nationally ranked high school team in Gillette, Wyo., and Erin Raber, a 6-0 post player from Pampa, Texas.
Those first-year players join a solid nucleus of returners headed by a pair of all-conference performers, juniors Rachelle (Speers) Wertenberger, who got married during the off season, and Angela Kroeker from Hillsboro. Wertenberger led the team in scoring at 15.3 points per game and Kroeker was right behind at 14.3.
“Rachelle also led our team in steals and is just an incredibly intensive defense player as well,” Allen said.
Allen said Wertenberger is still adjusting to a role in which she isn’t expected to carry as much of the scoring load.
“She’ll settle in to whatever her role needs to be to serve the team,” he said. “I have a lot of trust in her.”
Kroeker has been an honorable-mention all-KCAC pick each of her first two seasons at Tabor.
“Angela is a real good shooter, and she’s worked hard on getting her shot off in more intense situations,” Allen said. “She a really good defensive player, both inside and outside. She has good first-step quickness, but is also really strong-a lot stronger than she might look. She can do some things around the basket that other people her height can’t do.”
Two other starters also return. Carmen Hein was the team’s primary point guard and Amber McKillip played at the power-forward position.
Hein, a Hillsboro native, was third in the KCAC in assists but struggled at times with turnovers.
“We were asking her to try to make plays on a regular basis,” Allen said. “Now she’s surrounded by four players who can do things, so she might not have to take as many risks.”
McKillip was voted the team’s most-improved player by the end of last season. She was scoring eight to nine points a game toward the end, but Allen said her biggest contribution this year will be on the boards.
“Offensively, she’s probably as relentless to the boards as anybody I’ve ever seen play the women’s game,” Allen said.
He said he has mixed feeling about KCAC coaches ranking his team fourth in the preseason poll.
“Those polls indicate some respect for what we’re doing as a basketball team, but in a practical way those polls are meaningless,” he said. “We’ve got a lot to prove, and it’s a tough year to prove things when two of the teams (Sterling and Bethany) are ranked in the top 10 in the nation.
“We’re not making excuses and I believe we can compete with every body, but I’m just not at the point where I’m going to to predict anything.
“I’m just saying we’ll be fun to watch, and I think if we can get everybody on the same page, play the game the way our coaching staff think’s it should be played, and everyone accepts their role, then we have the potential to compete with all the teams in the conference.”