TC women looking to take next step up KCAC ladder

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
Hang on, fans of Tabor College women’s basketball. The upcoming season could offer as many thrills as a trip to your favorite amusement park.

Anticipation reverberated through the Bluejays’ preseason camp this fall as they embarked on what could be a hoops version of the Magic Kingdom.

“The players were extremely anxious to get practices started this fall,” said coach Rusty Allen (49-40), in his fourth year at the helm. “We felt like we were really close to a conference championship and a trip to nationals last year, and we think we’ve improved ourselves, talent-wise, since then.”

Allen hopes a mix of returning veterans and incoming transfers and freshmen will pave the way to the national tournament in Sioux City, Iowa, in March.

Blending his assembled talent is foremost on Allen’s mind.

“It’s always the biggest challenge for any team to get the women meshed,” he said. “Usually you have some challenges to get the team to jell, but that’s the challenge for me as the leader.”

All-conference returnees

Gone from last year’s team are all-conference performers Rachelle Wertenberger and Angela Kroeker, as well as point guard Trixsi Odom.

But Allen welcomes back two all-conference players in Erica Hemmert, a 5-foot, 7-inch, junior, and Jill Hein, a 5-10 junior.

“Erica is definitely the mainstay, to coin a phrase,” Allen said. “Erica has been really good her first two years here, but the thing that stands out about Erica is that she doesn’t rest on her laurels at all.”

Hemmert, the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference Freshman-of-the-Year two years ago and a first-team selection last season, led the Bluejays in scoring (14.5 point per game) and assists (3.0) and finished second in rebounds (5.6) while shooting 45 percent from the field and 36 percent from 3-point range (40-111).

“Erica has some goals that she’s determined to reach, and they’re all centered on the team,” Allen said. “She wants to get to the national tournament, and I think that’s really driving her.

“Erica has a tremendous desire to succeed,” he added. “She wants to be the leader of this team, and now she has the maturity to handle that role.”

Hein, an honorable-mention pick last year, began last season as she will this one-on the Bluejays’ conference champion volleyball team.

During the second half of the season, Hein’s athletic ability and strength created matchup problems for opposing coaches.

“If Jill improves as much between her sophomore and junior year as she did between her freshman and sophomore season, you’re looking at someone who’s going to be really difficult for our opponents to handle.”

Last season, Hein averaged 8.3 points while shooting 38 percent from the field. She added 3.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists.

“She has so many tools,” Allen said. “She jumps well, she’s quick, she’s got good body control, she can go inside or outside-she’s an extraordinary athlete for our level.”

Other key returnees

Also returning will be 5-11 junior Shannon Kroeker, who averaged 3 points and 2 rebounds per game.

“Shannon didn’t shoot as well last year, so we’ve encouraged her to get her game going with something other than the 3-point shot,” Allen said. “She’s a really good defender. Hopefully, she’ll give herself more credit for how good she can be on defense.

“I expect Shannon to shoot the ball much better this year,” he added. “We’ll have more 3-point shooters, so I think she’ll get more open looks and be a much better player this year.”

Post play will be this team’s forte, Allen said. Sophomores Donya Anderson (5-10) and Nicole Ellis (5-11) are ready to assume control of the paint.

“Donya actually got votes for freshman-of-the-year last season, but for all the success she had, you haven’t seen the best of Donya Anderson by far,” Allen said. “She’s more focused, demonstrates better leadership and effort, and stands to have a really good year.”

Anderson lead the team in rebounds with 6.4 per game. She averaged 6.1 points while shooting 49 percent from the field.

“Donya can be great on defense, not just good,” Allen said. “She’s not only big and strong, but she’s deceivingly quick.”

Ellis, who averaged 3.7 points and 2.1 rebounds, also had an effective freshman year, Allen said.

“She even surprised herself, so we expect Nicole to be a four-year contributor,” he said.

“What you’ll see in the next three years is that she’s turned herself into one of the best shooters in the conference,” he said. “I’m expecting a lot out of her. If you make a mistake, she’ll take advantage of it every time.”

Also returning are juniors Erin Raber (6-0) and Stephanie Stuber (5-6).

“Erin is smart and fundamentally sound, and she worked hard in the off-season to get herself into shape,” Allen said.

“Stephanie is a very savvy player who has as much natural sense for athletics as any player you’ll see.

“I think they’re both ready to play, but in what role, I can’t predict.”

Top-notch transfers

Topping the list of incoming transfers is Katie Tedder, who comes to Tabor by way of Hutchinson Community College and the University of Maryland at Baltimore County.

Tedder (6-0) scored 700 points in two years at Hutch and comes to Tabor for her senior season.

“Katie is very athletic, she’s quick and strong and she’s very smart,” Allen said. “She’s strong on both ends of the court. For her position, there isn’t anything she isn’t good at, at our level of play.

“Katie has the kind of talent that can be recognized nationally.”

Tedder is coming off knee surgery in June, making her availability to the Bluejays suspect.

“The big question is how quickly the knee will no longer be a factor, but she’s making progress every day.”

Another key transfer is Kelly Pavlik, a 5-11, junior from Phoenix (Ariz.) College.

While there, Pavlik was a team captain, most valuable player and women’s scholar-athlete of the year. She also was selected to the Region 1 first team and was third team all-conference.

“Kelly is a smart, determined and very skilled player,” Allen said. “She sees the court well and can deliver the pass.

“She works hard, anticipates well and loves to play the game,” he added. “Versatility on both ends of the court is the strength of her game.”

Transferring in late is Erica Dechant, who was a standout at Independence Community College. She started both seasons there and was a third-team All-Jayhawk Conference selection after a stellar high school career at Salina South.

“Erica is just good in every way,” Allen said. “She’s very intense and confident and she’s a really good shooter.”

Dechant, who averaged 11.5 points last year while shooting 45 percent from 3-point range, will become eligible in January and can play three semesters at Tabor.

Freshman talent

Allen said two freshmen will contribute immediately to the Bluejays’ fortunes. Derby’s Stacie Herman (5-7) and Hillsboro’s Katie Fast (6-3) both figure into Allen’s plans for the season.

“Stacie is competing for a starting job,” Allen said. “She’s strong, fast in the full court off the dribble and she gets to the basket. She brings something we haven’t had since I’ve been here, and that’s a good 3-point-shooting point guard.”

Allen said he has been recruiting Fast since she was a sophomore at Hillsboro High.

“She was awkward back then, but something told me she was going to be a player that bloomed late,” he said. “Katie ran the best half mile, mile and three miles in our preseason conditioning drills.

“She really moves well for a player with her height,” he added. “She’s pushing for playing time as a freshman. You can’t coach someone to be 6-3 and run like a deer. She’ll easily beat any other center down the floor. Whether we can take advantage of that or not, we don’t know.”

Team strengths

Allen said depth in the post and physical strength will be the team’s most formidable allies.

As has become a trademark of an Allen-coached team, defense will be a priority for the Bluejays. Tabor led the KCAC in fewest points allowed last season at 55.3, which ranked the Bluejays fourth in NAIA Division II.

“If you’re on this team and you can’t guard, you won’t play,” Allen said. “There’s always room for a player who plays good defense and rebounds well.

“We want to contest every shot, anticipate passes and emphasize the little things like not fouling,” he said. “It’s a lot of things that make us good on defense.”

Offensively, Tabor was fifth in the KCAC last season, averaging 64.6 points per game. But Allen sees this year’s edition raising the bar a notch.

“The potential for us to score considerably more points is there,” Allen said. “When you have more talent, and you’re a better shooting team, you should score more points-and that’s what I expect out of this group.”

Both Hein and Kroeker will finish the volleyball season before joining the basketball team, but Allen said it’s an obstacle he’s become used to.

“We think we know how to do it now,” Allen said. “I don’t say it won’t affect us, but that’s where we find ourselves and we’ll play the hand we’re dealt.”

Overall outlook

Allen said the teams’ success, as always, will depend on three factors: playing hard, playing smart and playing together.

“When you play, you try to be the best you possibly can,” Allen said. “If that’s good enough to win the conference championship, you can feel good about that.”

Allen said building a successful program doesn’t happen over night.

“We’ve progressed in our building faster than I thought we would,” he said. “We’ve beaten some good teams in the past couple years, but if you’re going to build up to potential champions, you can expect to take four or five years. This is my fourth, so winning a championship would be nice.”

Sterling College was the overwhelming preseason choice of coaches to repeat as conference champions, but Allen isn’t conceding the race just yet.

“There’s no doubt we can beat Sterling, but I believe we’ll have a better chance come February,” he said. “I think we need to get a win over Sterling before we deserve the same favor and respect they’ve earned.”

Allen said his primary goal is to see his players develop as persons, not just as players.

“Did my players grow in character and get better as basketball players?” Allen said. “Did we represent Tabor and it’s mission well on the court?

“Those are the main questions, but having said that, we’re not in this to lose either,” he added. “If we’re going to keep score, then we’re trying to win the game.”

Whether this is the year the Bluejays give Allen his first KCAC title won’t be known until February. But the possibility definitely has crossed his mind.

“That would mean a lot,” he said. “We have two goals: have a Christian ministry on our team and to play in the national tournament.

“I’ve had my sights set on that since I took this job.”

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