As the 2005-2006 Valparaiso University women's basketball season tips off, optimism is high for the Crusaders. Valpo is coming off of an 18-10 season one year ago, but looks to reverse the fortunes of a disappointing first round upset in the Mid-Continent Conference Tournament this season.
The Crusaders battled through an injury-plagued season in 2004-2005, a year which saw not one player start every single contest. In fact, only four players saw action in all 28 games, making the 18-win campaign even more impressive.
Valpo fought through all of the adversity to earn a 12-4 Mid-Con record, good enough to finish in a tie for second in the league. Head coach Keith Freeman returns seven players from last year's squad, including three starters, which posted the fourth straight season of 18 or more victories. It was the seventh time in the last eight years the Brown and Gold has reached the 18-win plateau.
Freeman also has a pair of redshirt freshmen back that had the opportunity to learn the system one year ago, and will look to make an impact this year when they hit the hardwood. The coaching staff also recruited a talented group of five newcomers which will add to the depth on the Crusader roster, in hopes of returning Valpo back to postseason play.
A trio of seniors will be called upon to guide Valpo throughout the season. Guard Lauren Bechtold will be looked to to run the point for the Crusaders this season. She started 23 games for the Brown and Gold last year, and played all 40 minutes on six occasions. A native of Hebron, Ind., just outside of Valparaiso, Bechtold ranked third in the Mid-Con with a 1.58 assist-to-turnover ratio last year and was seventh in assists, dishing out 3.32 helpers per contest. The senior proved that she was capable of scoring as well, tallying double-figures eight times.
Another senior guard, Jamie Gutowski, has also garnered a great deal of playing time over the past three years. A prolific outside shooter, she has drained 104 three-pointers during her career with the Crusaders. Another Northwest Indiana native, she also has been able to contribute at the free throw line, drawing 156 attempts in three seasons and connecting on 78.8% of her tries.
The final senior on the Valpo roster this year will be called upon to help the Crusader post game. Mayella Kuikhoven has been a valuable asset off of the bench throughout her career, appearing in 63 contests, including 50 over the past two seasons. Averaging over ten minutes per game last season, she was able to contribute 2.3 points and 2.0 rebounds per contest.
Krystal Taylor returned from an foot injury that forced her to redshirt during the 2003-2004 season and provided quality minutes last season. She will also contribute to the Crusader depth in the post as her inside play continues to improve. With two years of eligibility remaining, Taylor hopes to continue increasing her level of play and make an impact on the Brown and Gold's frontline.
In just two seasons with Valpo, Tamra Braun has proven that she is one of the top post players in the Mid-Continent Conference. The junior was a First Team All Mid-Con selection last year, and has been voted to the league's Preseason First Team this year. A 6'5" center, Braun is tied for second all-time on Valpo's block shot list, swatting away 98 shots during her first two seasons. Last year she averaged 10.0 points and 7.4 rebounds per contest, while posting five double-doubles. With two years of eligibility remaining, her potential has yet to be reached.
Another Preseason All Mid-Con selection will help Braun lead Valpo in the paint this season. Betsy Rietema is back after earning Second Team accolades from the coaches and media in the preseason balloting. An athletic forward, Rietema is able to create her own shot and fill the rim, as was shown last year when she averaged 10.2 points per contest as a sophomore. Now that she's a junior, she will be looked upon for more of a leadership role as well.
The final returnee on the Valpo roster with playing experience is Carrie Myers. The junior guard has great touch from the outside, setting a school record last season with nine three-pointers in a game. She ranked fourth in the Mid-Con shooting 39.5% from beyond the arc last season, and will look to once again fill it up heading into 2005-2006. She earned Mid-Con Player of the Week honors twice last season, and if she continues to play the way she did last year, will earn the accolade a few more times in the future.
A pair of individuals gained a year's worth of experience watching from the sidelines last year, and will look to contribute this season. Redshirt freshman post Evva Comans spent the year learning the game after arriving from Belgium prior to last season. She has improved defensively, a product of learning and understanding the defensive system implemented at Valpo, and will look to work herself into the rotation down low.
Sarah Ott also redshirted last year as a result of an ACL injury she suffered during preseason. She then suffered the same injury to her other knee during this past off-season, but hopes to put all of that past her entering this year. A true inside-outside player, she has the ability to score down low while also moving to the outside to knock down shots. When she returns to the form she was in prior to the injuries, she will become an integral part of Valpo's post play.
Freeman has brought in five very talented newcomers to help compliment the returners. Sanna Helenius arrives at Valpo after playing one season at John A. Logan College where she averaged 12.5 points and 3.5 rebounds per game. An off-guard, she is a solid defender who is very athletic. An excellent free throw shooter, she shot 76.5% from the line last year for the Lady Vols, getting to the stripe 162 times.
The Crusaders have a set of twins on the roster for the first time since 1996, when Heidi and Lisa Diefenthaler played for the Brown and Gold. Launa and Leah Hochstetler helped lead Berlin Hiland to the Ohio state title in Division IV last season and will look to help lead the Crusaders to a conference championship this year. Launa is a true point guard that is a proven leader. A good ball handler, she is proficient at distributing the basketball, as was shown in high school. She is the school record holder for assists in a season as well as a career, helping her earn All-State honors three times.
Leah is a shooting guard that earned Honorable Mention All-Ohio accolades as a senior. A shooter, she has solid outside range. As a high school standout, she set Hiland records for three-pointers in a game with ten, as well as breaking the school's single season and career marks.
Another scorer arriving in the Crusader program is Aimee Litka. The all-time leading scorer at South Bend Saint Joseph's, she tallied 1,698 points during her four-year career. A balanced scorer, she can take it to the rim, score in the mid-range, and also step out and hit the three-pointer. She too helped lead her team to the state title, as the Indians captured Indiana's 3A crown.
The final freshman to join the Valpo basketball family is Agnieszka Kulaga. Kulaga arrives from Poland where she was known for her scoring prowess, averaging 31.1 points per game last year. A well-rounded shooter, she can create her own shot as well as shoot off of the pass. A quick player, her defensive skills will become a great asset for the Crusaders.
With all of the talent on the Crusader roster, Freeman will put Valpo to the test with this year's schedule. The Brown and Gold will potentially face four teams that participated in postseason play last year. The Crusaders have two Big Ten teams on the slate, including Northwestern, a team that will visit the Athletics-Recreation Center on November 30. Valpo will also battle Purdue on December 11 in Fort Wayne, Ind. as part of Hoopla: A Celebration of Women's Basketball. The Crusaders also head to state-rival Notre Dame for a road contest on December 28 to continue that annual rivalry.
The regular season tips off at the ARC on November 18 when Northern Iowa comes to town. Loyola (Ill.) will also visit Valpo this season, while the Brown and Gold head out to Bradley, Ball State, and Central Michigan. The Crusaders will spend Thanksgiving weekend in Cincinnati at the National City Bank Xavier Invitational, where they have drawn Kent State as a first round opponent. Valpo will then face either the host Muskateers or Elon on day two.
Mid-Continent Conference play gets underway at home on December 30 against UMKC, the team that knocked the Crusaders out of the Mid-Con Tournament one year ago. Tournament champion Oral Roberts heads to the ARC on January 9 while Valpo will close the regular season in Tulsa, Okla. February 27. Last year's regular season champion Western Illinois is scheduled to pay a visit to Valparaiso on February 11.
This year's Mid-Con Tournament once again returns to Tulsa March 4-7 and the Crusaders hope to make this season's stay longer than last year. Freeman's squad has the talent to make a run for yet another Mid-Continent Conference title. The questions will be, how much time will it take for the newcomers to adjust to Division I basketball and how much will the returnees step up and lead the squad? If both come together, Valpo will look to cut down the nets at the end of the 2005-2006 season.