ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
Coming on the heels of a 12-6 record and a third-place finish in the KCAC and an 18-12 record overall, the Tabor women’s basketball team hopes to continue its ascension up the ladder.
With eight of last year’s top 10 players returning, plus another banner recruiting class, third-year coach Rusty Allen (31-28) thinks the climb is attainable.
“We have just as good a shot as anybody in our conference,” Allen said. “I don’t make predictions, but I believe we have the talent assembled to have a chance at winning this conference.”
Although the two players lost were starting point guard Carmen Hein (graduation) and 6-foot, 1-inch center Casey Stucky, a unanimous All-KCAC selection (health), the cupboard is anything but bare.
Allen’s squad will return 73 percent of its scoring and 70 percent of its rebounding from a year ago.
“I’m looking forward to having a team that has a lot of big-game experience,” Allen said. “This is the first time since I’ve been here that we have what you would call a considerable amount of experience returning.
“We’re also very fortunate to have such a good group of leaders in our senior class.”
Allen has four seniors he’ll count of for leadership this season.
n Angela Kroeker (9.8 points per game, 3.3 rebs). The 5-9 Hillsboro native is a three-year starter and has been honorable mention All-KCAC for two years.
“She shoots the ball really well, drives it to the basket, and is a very steady player on both ends of the court,” Allen said. “On defense, she really surprises people. Her physical strength is surprising for her body type.
“Angela defends all over the court and can literally defend anyone from the point to the center position,” he added. “Angela is a very dedicated person that gets up in the mornings to keep in the kind of shape she’s in.”
n Amber McKillip (3.1 ppg, 2.1 rebs.) comes into this season as one of the most versatile players on the squad.
“Whenever she’s called upon, she’s ready,” Allen said of the 5-9 Nebraska native. “Last year she tended to be more of a situational player, and whether it plays out that way this year, we don’t know yet.
“But I do know that whenever I call upon Amber, she’ll be ready,” he said. “Her practice attitude and her Christian example is just amazing. She’s extremely valuable to this team.”
n Rachelle Wertenberger (3.1 ppg, 2.1 rebs.), a 5-9 guard from Morrill was first-team All-KCAC as a sophomore.
“Rachelle has a work ethic that you would call elite,” Allen said. “Her ability to process what you want her to do and then do it at full speed is borderline amazing.
“She is a person who gets every ounce of everything she has to offer all of the time,” he added. “She is a very good shooter, she passes the ball into the post very well, and her defensive skills are outstanding.”
Wertenberger has been voted the teams “most outstanding defensive player” for the past two years.
n LaTasha Townsend (5.4 ppg, 3.8 rebs.) a 6-0 post from Winona, Miss., hopes to fill the void left by the departure of Stucky.
“LaTasha is much more confident and comfortable this year,” Allen said. “She feels like she belongs now and she feels this is her team.
“She has ownership in what’s going on and that leads to confidence on the court,” he added. “In practice we’ve seen a difference- she’s just a better player.”
Allen said Townsend’s experience playing against Stucky last season in practice has helped her improve.
“LaTasha, like the rest of us, hated to lose Casey, but in her mind she’s saying, ‘This is an opportunity and somebody needs to step up and take her place, and I can do the job.'”
With four seniors to set to lead the team, Allen said a strong freshman class last season has produced other veterans, albeit youthful.
Heading the list is Erica Hemmert (9.8 ppg, 4.1 rebs.), last year’s KCAC Freshman of the Year. The 5-8 WaKeeny native has improved over the off-season, according to Allen.
“She shoots the ball well, she rebounds well, and she’s learned how to play defense,” Allen said. “She is a lot better player now than she was last year.
“Erica has a deep passion for basketball, and it extends pretty much all year.”
Sophomore Trixsi Rodrigues Odom (2.2 ppg, 2.1 rebs.) comes into the season as a likely predecessor to Carmen Hein at the point-guard position. Odom (5-5) brings speed and durability to the position.
“She was lucky last year in the fact that she was a freshman backing up a senior, and she got to learn and ask questions,” Allen said. “On the other hand, she was good enough that she got plenty of court time, so she comes in with the best of both worlds under her belt.
“Her ability to defend is her strong point,” he added. “She can pressure the ball against just about anybody for a whole game, and she has great stamina, quickness and anticipation.”
Jill Hein (6.7 ppg, 3.7 rebs.) is another sophomore who drew a starting assignment in numerous games last season. Hein (5-10), a Hillsboro product, is one of the best all-around athletes on the Bluejay squad, Allen said.
“Jill is a very natural athlete who can amaze you with what she can do,” Allen said. “When Jill shoots the ball consistently well, she’s hard to stop because you can’t keep her from getting her shot.
“We can create tremendous mismatches when she’s shooting well because she can legitimately play the point guard through the power forward position,” he said. “She’s very physical and she’s a competitor who’s out there to win.”
Shannon Kroeker (8.0 ppg, 2.5 rebs.) is Allen’s fourth super-sophomore returning this season. The 5-11 Hillsboro native draws rave reviews from her coach for her intelligence and defensive abilities.
“Shannon surprised some people last year with what she could do at the college level, but not me,” Allen said. “Someone 5-11 that can shoot as well as she can, really puts the pressure on the other team.
“She’s a very smart defensive player,” Allen said. “She’s gotten physically stronger this year, which will really help us.”
Allen said while has Hemmert garnered post-season honors, all four of his returning sophomores could easily have won the “Freshman of the Year” award.
With such talent returning, it would be easy to assume Allen had a dip in his recruiting efforts, but that assumption would be wrong.
Allen signed 10 new players, with an emphasis on the inside game.
“This class (of recruits) rivals last year’s class,” Allen said. “It can always be better, but if it’s good, you just need to praise God and move on.”
Allen said several players have a definite shot at contributing in their initial year as Bluejays.
Among those singled out were:
n Dana Hanson (5-5, Farmington, N.M). “Dana shoots the ball well and has good quickness,” Allen said. “What we like the most is that she doesn’t turn the ball over.”
n Heather Handley (5-9, Gillette, Wyo.). “Heather is a lights out shooter,” Allen said. “As she learns to play defense the way we want her to, she’s going to be a good player here.”
n Jessica Vineyard (6-0, Sheridan, Wyo.). “She’s probably the best athlete in this group,” Allen said. “She’s strong, fast and she’s well skilled to the point that she’s already able to contribute.”
n Donya Anderson (5-10, Ardmore, Okla.). “She’s extremely physically strong,” Allen said. “She is the best rebounder on our team, which is unusual for a freshman.”
n Nicole Ellis (5-11, Sapulpa, Okla.). “Nicole brings a lot of aggressiveness to the floor,” Allen said. “She’s very smart and shoots the ball well.”
Recruiting has changed in the three years since Allen arrived.
“It’s easier in the fact that we have a solid program in place and that speaks for itself,” he said. “But it’s harder in the fact that I can’t tell as many people they can impact our team immediately because that wouldn’t be true.
“Which one would I rather have? I’d rather have the solid program in place.”
Allen said the Bluejays will be a team that has good quickness and will shoot the ball very well.
“We’ll also have a team that has a lot of experience in big games,” he said. “Experience usually leads to toughness and the tougher team usually wins.
“This group has toughness coming into this year.”
Allen said this year’s team has more experience and maturity than last year’s, and the nucleus of the team knows what it takes to win.
“I’ve asked our players who the toughest team on our schedule is, and they honestly answered Bethany and Sterling,” Allen said. “But our goal is that we’re the toughest team on our schedule.”
Allen said several things need to happen to bring a KCAC championship to Tabor.
“We have to get consistent post play, we have to play together, and we need to get breaks, like avoiding injuries,” he said.
“We need to get a win against a really good team and it needs to be at a time in the season where it puts us in a position we believe we can win a championship.
“We will pressure the ball hard 90 percent of the time, and we’ll really guard people hard,” he added. “Last season, we put some teams completely away with our ball pressure.”
Allen said his coaching philosophy is based on three “I’s”:
n Integrity. “Everyone associated with the team needs integrity,” Allen said. “We want to do our best and we really try to play for ways to improve our integrity.”
n Intelligence. “You have to be a smart player instead of just going through the motion.”
n Intensity: “It’s a simple all-out effort every time you’re on the floor,” Allen said.
Allen said he doesn’t pay attention to preseason polls that tabbed the Bluejays fourth in the conference.
“To me, they’re totally meaningless,” he said.
While not predicting anyone’s fortunes, Allen did elaborate on what the Bluejays would deem a successful season.
“According to my peers, it would be a successful season if we finish in the top four,” he said. “But I don’t think our players would be satisfied if we just finished in the top four in any way, shape or form.”
Allen said no matter what level of success the team achieves, there are lessons to be learned.
“I hope these women get an opportunity to grow as friends and as Christian people that are learning to be leaders,” Allen said. “When the day comes and they leave Tabor, they’ll be confident in their ability to step up with their families, churches, and their jobs and impact people for God’s kingdom.”
Allen’s’ staff will be comprised of second-year assistant Shawn Winter and first-year assistant Blake Buhrman.
The Tabor women opened their season Tuesday at McPherson against Central Christian College.
The Bluejays will be without the services of Angela Kroeker, Jill Hein and Shannon Kroeker, until volleyball season concludes. The three are members of the KCAC champion Bluejay volleyball team.