Excitement will be in the air when the Valparaiso Crusaders women's basketball team takes to the floor for the 2003-2004 season. After qualifying for the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history last season, and participating in postseason play in each of the last two years, confidence is at an all-time high for the Brown and Gold.
After losing just one player to graduation from last year's Mid-Continent Conference Tournament championship team, head coach Keith Freeman returns four starters and 11 players from a defense that finished 29th in the nation in scoring defense one year ago.
Senior guards Suzie Hammel and Kathryn Knoester look to guide the Crusaders back to the ?dance" before closing out their careers wearing a Brown and Gold uniform. Hammel, a preseason All Mid-Con Second Team selection this season, is Valparaiso's top returning scorer. She is averaging 9.5 points over her career, and her 168 career three-point field goals are third most in school history. Knoester is one of the team's top defenders. Last season she came off of the bench to provide the Crusaders a spark, but will look for a starting assignment this season.
Valpo's three juniors have tasted nothing but postseason success since arriving at Valpo. Point guard Katie Boone was named the Most Valuable Player of the 2003 Mid-Con Tournament and was also an Honorable Mention All-Conference selection last season. Boone, like Hammel, was also been named to the Preseason Mid-Con Second Team.
Valpo's inside game is a solid one with the return of Meredith Baugher and Jenna Stangler. Each showed a great deal of improvement last season in the post, and with another season under their belt, they will be looked upon for scoring and rebounding in 2003-2004. Baugher is coming off of an Honorable Mention All Mid-Con season last year, averaging 8.2 points and 5.3 rebounds per game. Stangler was also solid, grabbing 5.2 boards per contest.
Five sophomores have a year's experience at the collegiate level under their belt and will look to make an even bigger impact for Valpo in year two. Local Products Jamie Gutowski (Crown Point, Ind.) and Lauren Bechtold (Hebron, Ind.) saw significant playing time last season, and will be looked upon for more production this season. They strengthen the Valpo backcourt, allowing the Crusaders to rotate their lineup freely depending upon who has the hot hand each night.
Sophomore posts Dawn Vander Meer and Mayella Kuikhoven each improved throughout their rookie campaigns. Vander Meer shot 56.9% from the floor as a freshman, and both have now had an off-season to become stronger and work on refining their skills. They each may be called upon to step into big situations as the year rolls along.
Krystal Taylor also returns to the lineup after missing the final two-thirds of last season with a broken foot. She has been busy rehabilitating the injury and when healthy, adds defensive prowess, quickness, and athleticism to the floor for the Crusaders. Walk-on Heather Furr also returns in the backcourt. She worked hard all summer and with her solid habits can add pressure to the Valpo defense.
The Crusaders have a talented corps of freshmen coming in looking to fight for playing time as well this season. Center Tamra Braun will join guards Betsy Rietema and Carrie Myers as members of the rookie class. Megan Bess also returns to the squad after sitting out last season as a red-shirt.
Braun is a 6'4" center who is a gifted shotblocker. She is a quick learner and will be looked upon to help add strength in the post. Rietema is a versatile player who will be able to compete anywhere from the one through three positions on the floor. A good driver, she lets her instincts take over.
Myers is a scorer from various ranges. She is a complete shooter with extensive outside range, bringing an offensive threat to Valpo from off of the bench. Bess is returning from a leg injury, and will look to regain her shooting touch that she had in high school.
Valpo will look upon its defense to again lead the Crusaders in 2003-2004. The last two years the Brown and Gold has been ranked among the top-30 in the nation and will need to stay among the leaders for Valpo to be successful.
Rebounding is another key for the Crusaders to have a winning season. Valpo went 12-3 last season when the Brown and Gold outrebounded opponents, but suffered ten defeats when they were outboarded.
The excitement of Valpo hoops will be evident in the Crusaders roster from the opening tip-off this season. The Brown and Gold will open the year at the Women's Sports Foundation Classic hosted by the University of Oregon on November 15 and 16. After facing the host Ducks in the opening round, Valpo will battle either LSU or Villanova, both Elite Eight teams from last season.
The home schedule will open for the Crusaders on November 24 against St. Francis (Ind.), before Valpo tangles with Purdue in a rematch of last season's NCAA Tournament First Round game on December 3 at the Athletics-Recreation Center.
Valpo will host the Hoosier State Classic for the first time on December 6 with the Crusaders taking on Butler after Ball State and Indiana State battle. Loyola (Ill.) and IPFW will also visit the ARC for non-conference tilts this season.
Valpo will travel to Chicago to face DePaul, another NCAA Tournament team, in late December before the Crusaders open Mid-Continent Conference play on January 3 at Oakland, in a rematch of last season's conference tournament title game.
The season will wrap-up on March 1 with a visit from Chicago State, with the Mid-Con Tournament looming the following week in Kansas City.
With 11 returnees on the roster, Valpo has a great deal of experience to build upon for the upcoming season. After two years in a row of postseason experience, the taste is in all of the players mouths to return to the Big Dance. How Valpo will respond has yet to be determined. If the Crusaders can survive a difficult non-conference schedule, they should be prepared when the Mid-Con season rolls along. If everything comes together, the Brown and Gold will hope to once again end the season by cutting down the nets in Kansas City.