After back-to-back Mid-Continent Conference Tournament titles and two straight trips to the NCAA Tournament, expectations are high for the 2004-2005 Valparaiso Crusaders.
Head coach Keith Freeman returns for his 11th season at the helm of the Brown and Gold, and he looks to guide the Crusaders back to the NCAA Tournament for a third straight time.
Valpo has gained a great deal of respect even before the season starts this year, as the Crusaders have been tabbed the preseason favorite in the Mid-Continent Conference. Freeman returns ten letterwinners, including four starters, from last year's squad which finished 20-12 overall and 11-5 in the Mid-Con, placing second during the regular season.
The Crusaders should be led by a talented senior class. Jenna Stangler is a preseason First Team All Mid-Con selection, and is the team's top returning scorer and rebounder from one year ago. She averaged 10.6 points and 9.6 rebounds per game last season, on her way to earning Honorable Mention All-Conference honors as a junior.
Senior Katie Boone has been the catalyst for the Valpo offense the last three years. The Crusaders' point guard ranks fourth on the Brown and Gold's career assist list, and is 17th all-time in rebounding. A Second Team All Mid-Con selection last year, she has been named to the preseason Second Team for this season.
Meredith Baugher joins Stangler and Boone as the only three Crusaders on the team to have participated in three straight postseason tournaments. During the trios' rookie season, they helped Valpo advance to the quarterfinals of the Women's National Invitation Tournament in addition to the two NCAA appearances.
Baugher joins Stangler inside giving Valpo an experience post presence. She missed ten games mid-season last year with a broken foot, but rebounded to give the Crusaders some key minutes late in the year. An Honorable Mention All Mid-Con selection as a sophomore, she averaged 6.6 points and 3.7 boards per game last year.
Valpo's junior class is nearly as talented as the seniors. Jamie Gutowski was named to the Mid-Con All-Tournament Team last season after putting on a stellar performance at the league's premier event. Her runner with less than two seconds remaining in the quarterfinal gave Valpo a one-point victory and kept the Crusaders' quest alive for its return trip to the NCAA Tournament. She posted a career-high 20 points in the NCAA Tournament, and shot 38% from beyond the three-point arc on the year.
Lauren Bechtold, like Gutowski, has appeared in all 63 contests since arriving at Valpo. The Brown and Gold's back-up point guard the last two years, she has contributed significant quality minutes to the line-up. Five times last season she dished out four or more assists coming off of the bench.
Mayella Kuikhoven showed she has made great strides since her freshman season with her performance last season. She came off the bench to give Valpo minutes in the post during her sophomore campaign. She posted a career-high 15 points last season against Notre Dame, showing what she is capable of offensively.
Krystal Taylor returns to Valpo's bench this season after missing all of last year. The sophomore, in terms of eligibility, appeared in ten games as a freshman before suffering a season-ending foot injury which forced her to miss last year as well. Healthy entering this season, Taylor will look to add depth in the post for the Brown and Gold.
Valpo's three sophomores all contributed key minutes last year as freshmen. Tamra Braun was a force inside for the Crusaders, blocking shots, grabbing rebounds, and even scoring. Her 31 blocks rank sixth on Valpo's single season charts, and she tallied a career-high with 24 points against Oakland after shooting a perfect 10-for-10 from the floor. She shot 53.7% from the field as a rookie and added three double-doubles including a career-high 14 boards against Oakland as well.
Betsy Rietema earned All-Newcomer Team honors from the Mid-Continent Conference last year as a freshman. She made 12 starts during league play as a rookie, averaging 7.2 points per game. A versatile athlete, she saw time at several different positions for the Brown and Gold last season.
Carrie Myers also added depth to the Valpo bench last season, despite missing 11 games with an injury. She showed her offensive prowess right off the bat, scoring eight points in the season opener against Oregon. A prolific three-point shooter, she will add depth to Valpo's talented guard corps again this season.
Freeman has also brought in a talented group of four freshman that he will look toward to help make an impact this season for the Crusaders as well.
Sarah Ott arrives at Valpo as a former nominee for the McDonald's All-America Team, and will help give Valpo some versatility on the floor. A guard, she is talented shooting the three as well as driving inside. In addition, at 6'1", she has the ability to play inside.
Abby Nielsen is the fourth Crusader in as many years to arrive at Valpo from the state of Minnesota. She will be looked upon to help the Brown and Gold in the post, but also possesses a soft touch which allows her to step outside and shoot the basketball with an accurate stroke. A skilled passer as well, she will help add an extra dimension to the Valpo offense.
Freshman Kayla Ming brings a tough and competitive character to the Valpo line-up. A guard, her defensive mind-set will fit right in with the Crusaders' philosophy of defense first, then offense. An accurate outside shooter, she will bring an added element of energy with her every time she takes the floor.
The final freshman comes to Valparaiso from Belgium. Evva Comans adds an intimidating presence to the Crusader line-up as a 6'4" center. An intelligent post player, her competitiveness and hard-working attitude will help make her a more complete individual. As she improves on her moves inside, she will find that her potential may be unlimited.
Freeman has set up yet another challenging schedule for the Crusaders in 2004-2005. The non-conference slate sees the Brown and Gold facing a potential of seven teams that played in postseason action one year ago.
The season opens on November 19 at the Minnesota Subway Classic with the Crusaders facing Virginia Tech, a team which advanced to the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament last season. The following night Valpo will then face either Final Four participant Minnesota or Women's National Invitation Tournament participant Arkansas State.
The Crusaders will host the Valparaiso State Farm Classic in the Genesis Center in Gary, Ind. on November 28 against an NAIA Tournament participant from last year in Saint Xavier. Valpo will entertain NCAA participant Notre Dame at the Athletics-Recreation Center, while also hosting Miami (Ohio), another WNIT team. The Crusaders will travel to Washington State before the holidays, and also participate at the Dartmouth Big Sky Classic. The Crusaders' first round opponent is DePaul, another NCAA Tournament team, with a potential to face Richmond in the tournament as well.
Mid-Con play begins on January 3 at Centenary, with conference action continuing up to Valpo's attempt at defending its crown at the league tournament March 5-8 in Tulsa, Okla.
The pieces are all in place for another exciting season of Crusader basketball. Expectations are high for the team, and the Brown and Gold will look to make a third straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament when all is said and done.
Will the Crusaders be able to defend? What is the ultimate potential of this team which is picked to win the Mid-Con regular season title? How will Valpo gel four newcomers with a talented returning group? These question will be answered over the next few months, as Valparaiso looks to once again cut down the nets.