Bluejay women entering season with high hopes

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
Success and respect don’t always go hand-in-hand, but when it comes to the Tabor College women’s basketball team, the terms are synonymous.

Thanks to the dedication and hard work of fifth-year coach Rusty Allen (74-46) and a bevy of talented players, Tabor women’s basketball has earned a reputation as one of the nation’s finest.

“Society has a tendency to give more respect to people who they view as successful,” Allen said. “But I hope people notice that we conduct ourselves with a lot of class and that we play for God’s glory first and second to win championships.”

No team in Tabor women’s basketball history could be viewed as more successful than the 2004-05 edition.

The Bluejays rolled through the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference with a mark of 17-1, winning its first conference title since the 1991-92 season.

On his way to KCAC Coach-of-the-Year honors, Allen led his team to an overall record of 25-6, which included a win over Daemen, N.Y., in the opening round of the NAIA national tournament in Sioux City, Iowa.

Along the way, Tabor won 19 consecutive games and finished the season ranked No. 9 in the nation.

Does success breed respect?

Tabor opens the 2005-06 season as the No. 4 rated team in the nation and was an overwhelming pick to capture its second consecutive KCAC title.

The Bluejays return 10 letter-winners and eight of their top nine players, led by senior All-American Erica Hemmert.

But Allen says the road back to Sioux City is riddled with potholes.

“I’m not sure if our players realize how difficult it’s going to be to take the next step,” Allen said. “I need to find a way to provide leadership so we do what’s necessary, and that started last spring.

“I can talk and give the women examples and require certain things of them on the court, but ultimately we have to play basketball and evaluate what we’re doing,” he added. “There will almost certainly be a reality check somewhere down the line for us.”

All-KCAC returners

But those reality checks will be met head-on with by four All-KCAC selections from a year ago leading the way:

n Hemmert, a 5-foot, 7-inch senior, was a unanimous selection and an honorable mention All-American after averaging 13.8 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.4 steals last year.

Hemmert is a former Freshman-of-the-Year in the KCAC and a two-time All-KCAC pick.

“Erica is as determined of a competitor as I’ve ever been around,” Allen said. “She simply never loses her focus or determination.

“Her desire to win is strong but she believes that whatever she does in life she should do it to the best of her ability,” he said. “She’s always working on her game, she stayed in great condition and she’s as strong as ever-you’ll see a better player this year than you’ve ever seen.”

n Donya Anderson, a 5-10 junior, returns after capturing All-KCAC accolades last season when she led the conference in rebounding (9.0 per game), scored 9.0 points and added 2.7 assists and 1.9 steals.

Anderson recorded 12 double-doubles last season.

“It’s been said that basketball is both a science and an art-for Donya, the game is more of an art than it is science,” Allen said. “People don’t realize how physically gifted Donya really is. She has great hands and if she puts them on a rebound, she’ll get it.”

n Staci Herman, a 5-6 sophomore, earned All-KCAC honors in addition to the Freshman-of-the-Year when she averaged 11.2 points, 3.0 assists and 2.9 rebounds per game.

Herman hit 41 of 94 3-point shots (43.6 percent).

“That she’s a point guard and has a year in our system combine to put some of the on-court leadership on to Staci, but she has more confidence this year,” Allen said.

“She has the ability to hurt you in a number of different ways. Very few people can defend Staci one-on-one in the post if we get her isolated.”

n Jill Hein, a 5-10 senior, returns after averaging 8.7 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.2 steals and 1.8 assists and earning honorable-mention All-KCAC recognition.

“Jill is a matchup problem at this level,” Allen said. “She’s so much stronger and bigger than most guards, but if you defend her with a post player, she out-quicks them and outruns them.

“If Jill is on, she can score on anybody,” he said. “She has a great attitude about her teammates and coaches and will do whatever it takes to help our team.”

Returning depth

Beyond the four all-conference performers is significant depth.

Erica Dechant, a 5-7 senior, provides instant offense for Allen. The junior college transfer hit 35 of 80 field goal attempts (43.8 percent), including 19 of 49 (38.8 percent) from beyond the arc.

Dechant averaged 5.4 points in 17 games.

“She responds very well to coaching,” Allen said. “I believe you’re going to see a much-improved Erica Dechant this year.”

Shannon Kroeker, 5-11 senior, returns after averaging 2.7 points per game while converting 39.7 percent (29 of 73) attempts from the field.

“Shannon has the ability to hit big shots and I can see her scoring more points this year,” Allen said. “But she became a really good defender last year. She understands how we want to play defense and she plays it well. When somebody is 5-11 and plays the 3-spot, you don’t get that very often, defensively.”

Stephanie Stuber, a 5-6 senior, has been slowed by arthroscopic knee surgery thus far, but Allen said she fills a unique void for the Bluejays.

“She has a really big role on our team and it starts in practice because of her intelligence,” he said. “She’s a really good leader and encourager and she has a great sense of humor.

“I’m not afraid to put her into the game if we need her,” he said. “Steph is the only experienced player of her kind on our team.”

The status of Katie Tedder, a 6-0 senior, is uncertain after enduring her third ACL injury in 18 months.

“Katie is working hard with rehabilitation to the extent that if it’s possible to play with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, she’ll play-but we just don’t know,” Allen said. “But Katie has a very resilient spirit.”

Nicole Ellis, a 5-11 junior, is back after averaging 4.5 points and 4.2 rebounds per game last season.

“Nicole is technically about as perfect a player as you could ask for, down to the smallest detail,” Allen said. “She’s very smart and if you teach her something, she’ll do it right just about every time.

“Plus, she’s a very good shooter and if you leave her open, the balls going in the basket,” he added. “She’ll make a very significant contribution to our team.”

Katie Fast, a 6-2 sophomore, is back after an impressive freshman campaign in which she averaged 6.1 points and 4.2 rebounds.

“Katie’s strength is on defense, but that’s not to say she can’t provide offense,” Allen said. “She learned how to position her body last year with a low center of gravity, a broad base and the correct angle for her feet.

“She understands the game and can impact it.”

Last but not least on the list of returners is Sarah Lyons, a 5-8 sophomore who blossomed at the NAIA national tournament.

“Before we went to nationals, I told all the players they needed to be ready for every opportunity that presented itself,” Allen said. “Sarah was called upon in the game with Morningside (the eventual national champion) because of her quickness and her defense and I thought she played fabulously.

“She’s picked up right where she left off because that game was a huge confidence builder for her,” he added. “She plays defense as well as anyone we have.”

New faces

As if those returning players weren’t enough to energize Bluejay fans, Allen added a pair of immediate-impact players to the roster.

The headliner is Boston College transfer and former Class 5A all-state pick Emily Vogts, a 6-3 junior from McPherson.

“Emily brings a lot to Tabor basketball because she’s very athletic, she plays hard, she’s coachable and she’s well skilled,” Allen said. “She can put the ball on the floor, she’s solid with her back to the basket and she’s a very, very good passer.

“On defense she’s quick, well coordinated, smooth and she doesn’t seem to wear out. She can run forever.”

Also joining the team is Kirsten Watson, a freshman point guard from Quanah, Texas.

“Kirsten can handle the ball and she can shoot,” Allen said. “She’s still trying to adjust to the college game, but she’s already gotten tougher and more explosive and she’ll definitely play. She’s a true point guard.”

National tourney impact

Allen said Tabor’s trip to Sioux City has already made an impact on Bluejay basketball.

“It’s absolutely opened doors for us because good players like to play where they feel they’ll have a chance to be successful,” he said.

“We’re recruiting for next year and the year after that-and we have some really, really good recruits on the line right now.”

The immediate effects of the national tournament experience are evidenced in this year’s roster, too.

“We became more confident and we’ll have a tendency to play without fear when the pressure is on,” he said.

Defense is key

For any Allen-coached team, defense is tantamount to success.

“This team has the potential to be one of the top defensive teams around, and I’ve challenged them with that,” Allen said.

“But that’s not easy because potential doesn’t mean anything unless you get with it and play hard and smart.

“But when you start to compete for championships, the thing that really helps you take the next step-whatever that step may be-is you have to score points.”

Staffing and outlook

Allen said he’s been busy working hard to become a better offensive coach, along with assistants Shawn Winter, Scott Proffitt and student assistant Rachel Kostner.

“My assistants don’t get as much credit as they deserve,” he said. “But we have the talent to score more points, and that’s where I think recruiting helps because to score points you have to have talent.

“Good players make good coaches, but we also have a system that lends itself to scoring more game in and game out.”

Whether Tabor can duplicate last year’s success remains to be seen since the Bluejays face a rugged non-conference schedule in addition to their KCAC slate, which include four KCAC squads that Allen said “are legitimate top-20 teams.”

“We have to avoid offensive slumps to do as well as we did last year,” Allen said. “Other teams will be focused on beating us, so we’ll get their best effort every time.”

Season opener

The journey to defend their conference title and earn a return trip to Sioux City begins Friday when the Bluejays compete at the College of the Ozarks Coke Classic in Missouri.

“Expectations for this season are high, but if I didn’t think those expectations were possible, I wouldn’t have taken this job in the first place,” Allen said.

“I’m not going to involve myself in something that I don’t believe has the potential to be excellent.

“I’m not making any predictions, but this is what we’re working for and we all believe it’s possible.”

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