As the 2007-2008 women’s basketball season gets underway, fans of the Valparaiso Crusaders will notice considerable changes from previous seasons, both on and off of the court.
On the hardwood, Valparaiso looks to replace four seniors that graduated last season and shouldered a great deal of the offensive production. Four freshmen have been brought in to help replace the 3,384 career points and 1,838 career rebounds that exited following the past four years.
Off of the court, Valparaiso sees itself moving to the Horizon League, the Crusaders’ first move in conference affiliation since joining the Mid-Continent Conference in women’s basketball in 1992-1993 after previously playing in the North Star Conference.
Head coach Keith Freeman begins his 14th season at the helm of the Crusaders. Valpo’s all-time winningest coach with 229 victories on the Crusader bench, Freeman returns eight players plus a redshirt from last year’s squad which went 20-11 overall and 11-3 in the Mid-Continent Conference, earning league runner-up honors. Freeman has guided the Brown and Gold to 12 winning seasons in the last 13 years, winning at least 18 games on eight occasions.
Freeman returns associate head coach Greg Kirby and assistant coach Meredith Baugher to his bench this season. He has also added Abby Scharlow, a former player with Green Bay in the Horizon League, to help with perimeter play.
Valparaiso’s youth will show this season as the Crusaders have just one senior on the roster. Sanna Helenius has appeared in 41 games off of the bench for the Crusaders over the past two seasons after transferring from John A. Logan College and will be called upon to provide the senior leadership for the team.
Helenius, one of the team’s top free throw shooters connecting on 82.8% of her attempts last season, will rely on her quickness to help the Crusader front court. She turned in one of her top performances of her career towards the end of last season, a 13-point, three-rebound effort against Centenary. Helenius also poured in eight points at Big Ten foe Northwestern as a junior.
During the offseason, Helenius has gained valuable experience playing with the Finland National Team each of the past two summers. She will look to carry the international experience over and into the upcoming year.
Five juniors will be called upon to help Helenius provide the upperclass leadership that is a key to success for so many programs. Valpo’s corps of juniors should be able to help in this area, trying to lead the Brown and Gold near the top of the Horizon League standings.
Sarah Ott is the team’s top returning scorer and rebounder from last season, having averaged 5.9 points and 3.1 rebounds per game. The redshirt-junior saw a vast improvement in her game from her freshman season, as she started 28 of 31 contests last year. She scored in double figures eight times playing in the paint while grabbing at least four boards in 13 games.
Another quality free throw shooter at 83.9% last season, Ott could help the Crusader offense a great deal with physical play in the post and by getting to the free throw line. She is also able to step outside and hit the three-point shot, connecting on 21-of-60 (35.0%) from long range a year ago.
A pair of junior point guards will be called upon to run the offense for another season. Agnieszka Kulaga had a break out year last season, averaging 5.5 points and 2.4 assists per contest while starting 24 games. Scoring in double figures seven times, including a break-out 18-point, five-assist performance against Bradley, she had 10 four-plus assist nights on the year.
Kulaga also has international experience, having played for Poland over the past couple of summers. With experience playing various styles of basketball, she has been gaining the experience necessary to help direct the offense.
Launa Hochstetler was named the Mid-Continent Conference Sixth Woman of the Year after coming off of the bench most of the year to average 5.1 points per game. An 85.7% free throw shooter, tops on the team, she also shot 40.9% from three-point range on the season.
In tandem with Kulaga, the duo will be called upon to help control the pace of the game on the offensive end of the floor.
Aimee Litka also provided valuable minutes off of the Valparaiso bench last year as a sophomore. Averaging more than 13 minutes per game, she provided a fairly steady three to six points per game in the reserve role.
Having played in all but four games during her first two years, she exploded for 14 points at Indiana last season. Litka has also proven capable of getting to the glass, as is evident by a pair of seven-rebound performances already in her career.
Leah Hochstetler, Launa’s twin sister, also provides depth off of the Crusader bench at the guard spot. She has appeared in nearly half of the games over the first two seasons of her career, and provides an outside scoring threat for the Brown and Gold.
A pair of sophomores gained valuable experience for Valparaiso during their first season of collegiate basketball and will be called upon for a heavier role on the squad this season.
Whitney Farris surprised several teams late last season with her breakout performances. The 5’10" sophomore scored 13 points against Western Illinois and followed that up with 14 more two nights later against Chicago State. She entered that weekend’s play having scored just 19 points all season before those two efforts. She followed that up a couple of games later with an 11-point scoring outburst as well.
Farris also did a decent job of getting to the boards, averaging 1.8 per game in the limited action. She had games of seven and six boards each, showing signs of what may lie ahead for her in the future.
Kelly Peller also gained a great deal of experience in her rookie season for the Brown and Gold. The 5’11" forward has a good perimeter game that will help to extend the defense with her outside shot.
Peller appeared in 22 games for Valpo as a freshman, and even drew a pair of starting assignments midseason. Even playing on the perimeter, she was able to rebound for the Crusaders, grabbing a season-high four at Indiana.
Freeman recruited four new Crusaders for the upcoming season, all from the state of Indiana, and also will see the first court action of redshirt-freshman Katie Emig this year. Emig suffered a knee injury during preseason last year and had to miss the entire campaign following surgery. The 6’2" post will be looked upon to help provide a physical presence in the paint, and should have a year’s worth of knowledge to help her along.
Jasmine Ussery is an athletic forward who is a solid rebounder. A Third Team All-State selection at Castle High School in Newburgh, she led her team to a 91-13 record over four years, including 48 victories between her sophomore and junior years. An Indiana All-Star, she helped her team to a state title. She led the team in rebounds as well as getting to the free throw line.
Ashley Varner led South Bend Washington to the 2007 state championship in Indiana after finishing state runner-up her junior year. An Indiana All-Star, the 6’0" freshman forward is a versatile player who should help the Crusaders both on the perimeter and in the post. She led her teams to a combined 53-3 record her final two years of high school.
A point guard, Rashida Ray not only has the ability to score, but also distributes the ball well. A three-time All-Conference pick in high school, she helped lead Fort Wayne Harding to four sectional championships as well as a regional title. Her AAU teams won five state championships as well as one national title as well.
Stephanie Thomas completes the 2007-2008 recruiting class for the Crusaders. She has the ability to score and find the basket. Thomas participated in the 2007 North/South Indiana All-Star Classic and was also a McDonald’s All-American nominee as a senior.
Valparaiso is set to play one of its most difficult schedules in school history this season, beginning with non-conference action. The Crusaders will play 10 of their 29 regular season games against teams that participated in postseason play last year, including six against NCAA Tournament participants.
The season opens on November 9 at Bowling Green as the Crusaders face a Falcon team fresh off a Sweet Sixteen appearance one year ago. Three days later Valpo heads to face an Elite Eight team from last year in Purdue.
The season-opening road trip continues with games at Cincinnati and Xavier (Ohio) before the Crusaders head to a tournament at Florida Gulf Coast. The home opener is set for December 1 when Valpo hosts Ball State as part of the State Farm Hoosier Classic. The Crusaders also have home contests with North Texas and South Dakota State sandwiched around a trip to Notre Dame.
Valpo opens Horizon League play on January 5 for the first time when instate rival Butler comes to the Athletics-Recreation Center as the Brown and Gold’s first league foe. Valpo will also end the 18-game league loop at Butler on March 8 before heading to the Horizon League Tournament March 10-16 on the campus sites of the higher seeds.
With so many changes from one year ago for the Valparaiso, the answers to success for the Crusaders will come based upon how the team adapts to the changing environment. The talent is in place for a solid showing in the first year in the Horizon League, now all that is left is tipping off the season.