Jays seek constant improvement

For the Tabor College women’s basketball team, success will be measured, and ultimately achieved, in the daily grind of improvements made each day.

Head coach Shawn Reed and the Bluejays have made three consecutive trips to the NAIA Division II national tournament, including back-to-back appearances in the round of eight.

With those “destinations” in mind, Reed said the means to that end are achieved every day in practice.

“We try to have goals that are things that we can control,” he said. “We’d love to go back to the national tournament. We’d love to make another run at the national tournament. We want to compete for conference championships. But we can’t do that today, other than just work hard and try and improve on a daily basis.

“That’s really what we try to focus on, and it gets harder, the more that you go to do that—and I can speak to that from my time at Sterling—because you start to take things for granted. I’m hopeful that won’t be the case with us—that we’ll focus on getting better every day. That we won’t get so far back and think so far ahead that we lose sight of the tasks that we have to master today.”

The Bluejays are fresh off a special season in which they secured the regular-season title for the second year in a row, falling just one game short of a perfect conference season with a 19-1 record. Tabor won the KCAC tournament and advanced to nationals, where the Bluejays defeated Hastings, then Asbury in overtime, before falling by six to Southern Oregon.

Tabor ended the year ranked 10th nationally with an overall record of 28-8, accomplishing all of it without having anyone average double figures in scoring.

“I can’t ever remember a team that I’ve coached or been a part of or known of where they’ve had that much success and not had anyone average double figures,” Reed said. “To me, that was an amazing testimony to the unselfishness of our team. I think we had nine different players that led us in scoring in individual games multiple times. That just doesn’t happen.”

The Bluejays return five of six All-KCAC honorees from last year, including three starters. Reed has brought in 11 transfers and freshmen to add to the mix, and he said he hopes that the depth and unselfishness that epitomized last year’s squad carry over to this year’s team as the Bluejays gear up for the year ahead.

Guards

The Bluejays will play without three graduated guards—Taylor Hurd, Mallory Zuercher and Kayla Wilgers—whose stifling defense left opponents off-balance.

But Tabor returns three all-conference athletes at the guard position, including senior Kaleigh Troxell, and sophomores Morgan Ediger and Taylor Deniston.

Troxell was a third-team All-KCAC selection a year ago. She turned in per-game averages of 5.9 points and 2.4 rebounds and provides versatility at the point guard and wing positions.

Ediger was named KCAC Freshman of the Year and was a unanimous selection for the All-KCAC freshman team. She averaged 6.0 points and 2.5 rebounds per game.

Deniston, too, was a member of the freshman team. She recorded per-game averages of 5.5 points and 2.0 rebounds.

Junior Amber Bonham also returns with significant minutes. On average, she scored 5.9 points and grabbed 1.7 rebounds per game.

“Those are four very, very solid, experienced guards that we return,” Reed said. “Although we lost three, we have four back that played a lot of time. Now, we’ll have to play more than four to be successful, and I’m looking for a couple things to possibly happen.”

Reed said he may rely on returning sophomore Tristen Leiszler for increased minutes, as well as incoming freshmen Madison Schmelzer, Sydney Webb and Marisela Perez.

It will be important for the guards to continue to improve their defensive play.

“I know they’re really good offensive players, but I need them to be really good defensive players,” Reed said. “I want all of them to prove that they can be really, really good defenders, and I think all of them improved there last year.”

Forwards

While Tabor will play without Sam Short at forward, the Bluejays return two starters in that position.

Tena Loewen returns for her senior campaign. A 2016 NAIA Division II second-team All-American, Loewen led the team in points (9.4), rebounds (7.4) and assists (1.6) per game a season ago.

Loewen earned the Hustle Award at the national tournament, where she shot a tournament-best 86.4 percent from the field (19-22) and turned in per-game averages of 15 points and 10.3 rebounds in three games.

Loewen was a unanimous first-team All-KCAC selection a year ago and a member of the all-conference defensive team. She ranked 43rd nationally in offensive rebounds per game (3.1).

Asked what makes Loewen such a dynamic athlete, Reed said: “I think it’s a combination of her God-given skills and abilities. She just has a tremendous basketball intellect and IQ, and she understands how to play. She’s really tenacious and works extremely hard and never takes a play off. You get a pretty special player when you combine all those things.”

Joining Loewen as a returning starter to bring a one-two punch is senior Jurnee Reid. Reid led the team in steals with an average of 1.7 per game and ranked 50th nationally in steals (62). She turned in per-game averages of 9.2 points and 5.0 rebounds.

“When you combo (Tena) and Jurnee together, you’ve got two really, really special forwards there that people have to pick their poison,” Reed said. “That’s hard to do because they’re both really, really good players.”

Loewen, however, is also a member of the Bluejay volleyball team, and Reed said he’s not sure when she will be available and ready to contribute on the basketball court.

Like Loewen, returning senior Nicole Decker is also competing in a fall sport. A member of the Bluejay soccer team, she too, will come late to basketball.

Additional returners who may see increased varsity time include sophomores Kristyn Wedel and Taylor Mires, and Reed said he has added three newcomers to the mix: junior Deanna Manning, sophomore Kelsey Unruh and freshman Kyli Webber.

Outlook

Reed said a strength of his team, once again, is depth.

“Will we have a team that we play 11 or 12 every night and we don’t have anybody that averages double figures? I don’t know, because that’s pretty rare that we had that last year,” he said. “But I still think we’ve got good, quality depth.”

Reed looks for the team to be skilled offensively, while the defensive side of the ball will be a work in progress.

“In my experience, you need to be able to shut people down if you want to be able to win those tough ball games at the end of the year,” he said.

Reed said that, like Tabor, a number of other conference teams lost quality players to graduation last year, but he anticipates a battle every night of competition.

“We’re going to get everybody’s best challenge every night,” he said. “Nobody’s going to take us lightly, so we just have to be prepared for that as well.”

Tabor will begin the season by hosting William Woods Oct. 31 at 5:30 p.m. The Owls qualified for the NAIA Division I national tournament a year ago.

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