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Valpo Women Set to Tip 2009-10 Hoops Season
Sylwia Zabielewicz and the Crusaders tip-off exhibition play on Sunday. (Ray Acevedo)
Sylwia Zabielewicz and the Crusaders tip-off exhibition play on Sunday. (Ray Acevedo)

Thursday, October 29, 2009

When the Valparaiso University women’s basketball team takes to the hardwood in 2009-2010, head coach Keith Freeman’s squad will be looking to replace more than 65% of its scoring from a year ago.  A balanced roster of eight letterwinners, including two starters, and five newcomers make up the Crusader roster which will look to improve upon last season’s 16-14 record overall and 10-8 Horizon League mark which saw the Crusaders finish in fourth place in the conference.

Valpo will be looking to prove the prognosticators wrong again this season, as the Brown and Gold has been tabbed to finish sixth in this year’s preseason poll.  A year ago the Crusaders were also picked sixth, but rose to the occasion and earned a home quarterfinal game in the conference tournament.

Gone from a year ago are four seniors, including three which rank in the top-20 on Valpo’s all-time scoring list combining for more than 2,700 career points.  A Horizon League All-Newcomer Team selection returns to the lineup though, in addition to four freshmen and a transfer who sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules.

Coaching Staff
Freeman returns for his 16th season at the helm of the Brown and Gold and 22nd overall coaching women’s collegiate basketball.  He enters the year ranked 42nd among all active Division I head coaches for career victories with 389, and will be looking to surpass the 400-win mark this season.  Valpo’s all-time winningest coach, Freeman has posted a 260-181 record on the Crusader bench, owning more than half of the school’s victories.  He surpassed the 250-win plateau with the Brown and Gold during last season, and will be building on his school-record win total in 2009-2010.  In his 15 seasons at Valpo he has produced 13 winning campaigns.

Freeman’s assistant coaches return from a year ago as well, and are all talented individuals that bring a great deal of experience and knowledge to the Crusader bench.  Associate head coach Greg Kirby returns for his fourth season with the Brown and Gold and has over 30 years of coaching experience.

Abby Scharlow is back for year three and has helped the Crusader perimeter game since arriving at Valpo after playing professionally for several seasons.  Another former professional player, Christy Smith, is back for year two on the sidelines.  She has Final Four playing experience from her collegiate days at the University of Arkansas in addition to being drafted into the WNBA.  In her first season at Valpo she provided fresh insight into the coaching staff.

A familiar face has been added to the staff this season as well.  Aimee Litka joins the program as a student assistant after playing for the past four seasons with the Crusaders, and will be helping with a great deal of behind the scenes projects for the basketball program.

Seniors
Three senior posts will be called upon to lead the way for the 2009-2010 Crusaders.  Lauren Kenney was named to the All-Newcomer Team last season after joining the Valpo program from Lincoln Trail College.  She made an immediate impact for the Crusaders averaging 10.9 points and team-leading 6.0 rebounds per game while shooting better than 54% from the field.  Her production was hampered midseason, as she missed six games with a foot injury.  She bounced back though, tallying a season-high 26 points against Milwaukee late in the season.  Kenney had five double-figure rebounding games for the Crusaders, including a 15-board effort against eighth-ranked Notre Dame.  An inside force, as the team’s top returning scorer, she we be relied upon heavily to lead the team.

Whitney Farris is also coming off of her best rebounding season in a Crusader uniform and will also be looked upon to provide strength in the post.  Valpo’s second leading rebounder a year ago grabbing a career-high 4.6 boards per game, she started approximately a third of the Crusaders’ 30 contests.  She also tallied 5.3 points per game as a junior, just a shade above her career average.  

Another junior college transfer last season made an impact in her first year with the Brown and Gold. Sylwia Zabielewicz made 19 starts in her junior year at Valpo and averaged 3.2 points and 2.9 rebounds per game.  At six-foot, six-inches, she was the tallest player in the Horizon League a year ago and took advantage, shooting nearly 48% from the floor.  She also shot 76% from the free throw line, proving that if she can take advantage of her size and get to the charity stripe more this year she should be able to bolster her scoring production.

Valpo’s fourth senior, Kelly Peller, returns to the court after missing last season with a leg injury and will help lead the perimeter.  Two years ago she started half of the games for the Brown and Gold, averaging 2.9 points per contest.  A solid shooter, she knocked down 36% of her three-point attempts during her sophomore campaign.

Juniors
Four juniors also join the Crusader upperclassman ranks to provide the leadership that will be needed to help the younger players along.  Ashley Varner helped contribute to the depth of Valpo’s inside game averaging 3.1 points and 3.2 rebounds per game, mainly coming off of the bench last year.  Her break-out game came in early January as she poured in a career-high 14 points and grabbed eight rebounds against Youngstown State one game after pulling down a career-best nine boards versus North Florida.

Another junior post player will be a newcomer for the Crusaders on the court but has been with the program for a year already.  Kelly Watts had to sit out last season per NCAA transfer rules following two seasons at Eastern Michigan University.  She has two years of eligibility remaining, and could prove to become a force in the Horizon League.  As a sophomore in the Mid-American Conference, she averaged 7.0 points and 6.2 rebounds per game for the Eagles while grabbing 14 boards in a contest on two different occasions.  She has had a year to learn the Crusader system and will look to make an immediate impact in the lineup.

With the Crusaders solid on returning post play and young with their guard play, Rashida Ray will be looked upon to help the perimeters learn the collegiate game.  Ray saw action in 19 games as a sophomore off of the bench, averaging 2.3 points per night.  An outside shooting threat, she connected on 41.7% from downtown last season, including three triples on her way to a season-high 11 points at Loyola (Chicago).  As a rookie she poured in 12 points at Cincinnati, showing the potential she has for offensive production.

Stephanie Thomas also returns for her third season with the Brown and Gold on the perimeter.  She has seen limited action thus far in her collegiate career, but has made the most of her opportunities, averaging a point every two minutes last season.  She will look to play a bigger role for Valpo this coming year.

Sophomores
Valpo’s sophomore class is a small one, consisting of just guard Betsy Adams.  Appearing in 23 games off of the bench during her rookie season, Adams gained a great deal of collegiate experience as a freshman.  She tallied double figures on four different occasions, including a career-high 14 points against Cleveland State early in Horizon League play.  A solid outside shooter, she came off of the bench to lead the Brown and Gold in scoring at Butler, tallying 12 points while draining four triples.  She will be called upon for even more minutes in year two with the Crusaders, with last year’s experience helping her to succeed in that role.

Freshmen
Freeman has added four freshmen, three perimeters and a forward, to the program for the 2009-2010 season.  Gina Lange is the lone post added to the roster.  The Wyoming, Minn. native was an Honorable Mention All-State pick after setting Forest Lake High School’s career rebounding record with nearly 700 over her four-year prep career.  She was also a nominee for Miss Basketball in Minnesota.

Skyler Gick arrives at Valpo after becoming the all-time leading scorer at Benton Central High School with 1,444 career points.  A First Team All-State selection, the Otterbein, Ind. native is coming off of an appearance with the Indiana All-Star Team this past summer following her prep career.  Gick knows how to win, leading the Bison to a 24-2 record as a senior and a semi-state appearance.

Raegan Moore also was a scoring machine for Girard High School in Girard, Pa. during her prep career.  She averaged more than 18 points per game as a junior and senior, finishing her stay with the Yellow Jackets scoring 1,475 career points.  A Second Team All-State selection, her team finished in the top-10 in the state of Pennsylvania twice.

The final freshman, Laura Richards, was a three-time All-Olympic Conference selection out of Connersville High School in Connersville, Ind.  The school’s career field goal record-holder, she set a school record with 13 assists in a game.  She too played for a winning program, leading the Spartans to a 19-3 record as a junior.

Schedule
Valpo’s schedule, like the last few years, is a very challenging one for the Brown and Gold.  The Crusaders open the regular season on November 14 against Indiana Tech, the first of three straight home games to begin the year.  The homestand marks the longest in program history to open a campaign.  Visits from Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, Colorado State, and Central Michigan comprise the home portion of the non-conference slate at the Athletics-Recreation Center.
    The road schedule during non-conference play consists of five games against teams that played in the postseason last year.  Valpo’s first road test comes November 24 at Ball State, a team that advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament one year ago.

A five-game trip in which the Crusaders will play each contest against major conferences awaits the Brown and Gold in December.  The road swing begins with three straight games against Big East foes.  The first two legs of the trip will see Valpo head to Pittsburgh and Notre Dame, two schools that advanced to the NCAA Tournament in 2009.  The Crusaders then head to Cincinnati right before the Christmas holiday.

Following a week off for the holidays, the Brown and Gold heads to San Diego, Calif. for the San Diego Surf ‘n Slam where the Crusaders will face Auburn, a top-10 team from one year ago.  The second day of competition out west will see Valpo face either host San Diego State, who played in “The Big Dance” or Wake Forest, a WNIT participant.

The 18-game Horizon League slate begins on January 2 at the ARC when UIC visits.  The Crusaders will also close the regular season against the Flames in Chicago, Ill. on March 6 before heading into the Horizon League Tournament which runs from March 8-14.

An exciting season of Valpo hoops is right around the corner.  With all of the experience in the post, one would have to figure the inside game will lead the Crusaders early in the 2009-2010 season.  But with a talented pool of underclass guards looking to make their presence known, Valpo will look for another top-half finish in the Horizon League while trying to host a quarterfinal tournament game for the second straight year.  With the leadership of the upperclassmen mixing with the spirited youthfulness of the newcomers, the Crusaders will prove plenty of excitement at the ARC this year as they look for their 14th winning season in the last 16 years.

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