With the 2006-2007 basketball season right around the corner for the Valparaiso Crusaders, familiar faces abound for the Brown and Gold and hopes are high for yet another successful season.
This season marks Valpo's final campaign in the Mid-Continent Conference, as the Crusaders move to the Horizon League in 2007-2008. With that in mind, there is nothing the Brown and Gold would rather do than leave on top of the league.
The Crusaders are coming off of a 16-13 season overall as well as a 9-7 mark in the Mid-Continent Conference, finishing fourth during the regular season. Valpo advanced to the semifinals of the conference tournament before a cold shooting night ended the Brown and Gold's dream of another tournament title.
With winning seasons in 15 of the past 16 years, expectations are high for the Valpo program. Head coach Keith Freeman returns 11 letterwinners, including three starters, from last year's squad, and has added three freshmen to the roster as well.
Freeman, the Mid-Con's winningest coach of all-time, enters the season with 338 career victories, including 209 at the helm of the Brown and Gold. His squad has been picked to finish second in the Mid-Con this year, and has three preseason All-Conference selections on his roster.
Valpo's senior class is an extremely talented one, with three All Mid-Con selections among it. The four members of the class of 2007 will be called upon to step up large with regards to leadership, both on and off of the court.
Tamra Braun, a preseason First Team All Mid-Continent Conference selection, looks to continue to climb Valpo's record books in her final campaign with the Brown and Gold. A First Team All Mid-Con pick each of the past two years, she is second in school history shooting 52.3% from the floor throughout the course of her career. A dominant force in the paint, she has grabbed over 600 rebounds during her first three years, and is ninth all-time on the Valpo charts.
As a junior, Braun averaged 12.0 points and 8.3 rebounds per game for the Crusaders, and will be called upon to step up big again this year. The senior center has posted 16 double-doubles in her first three years on the roster, while averaging double figures in scoring each of the last two seasons.
A preseason Second Team All Mid-Con pick, Betsy Rietema proved she was a go-to scorer for Valpo last season. A Second Team selection last year in the Mid-Con, Rietema led the Crusaders in scoring averaging 13.0 points per game. The senior forward also had her best season of her career on the glass, grabbing 6.0 rebounds per contest.
Rietema, a Third Team Academic All-America selection as a junior, ranks 17th in school history with 855 career points. A proficient free throw shooter as well, she is shooting nearly 70% throughout the course of her career.
Another preseason Second Team selection is Valpo's force from the outside. Carrie Myers, an Honorable Mention All-Conference pick as a junior, averaged 10.6 points per contest last year while shooting 40.2% from three-point range.
A 39.0% outside shooter throughout the course of her career, Myers ranks second all-time in three-point shooting percentage entering the 2006-2007 season. Her 130 triples also are eighth best in a Valpo uniform.
Fifth-year senior Krystal Taylor is coming off her first complete season in a Crusader uniform. The Valpo forward appeared in all 29 contests for the first time in her career last year, making five starts. Her physical presence in the post will be relied upon this year to provide a one-two combination with Braun inside.
Taylor was hampered by injury her freshmen season, and sat out as a redshirt in what would have been her sophomore year. She then provided depth off of the bench as a redshirt-sophomore before moving into a regular role last year.
Coach Freeman has just one junior on his roster this year. Sanna Helenius transferred to Valpo from John A. Logan College prior to last year, and appeared in 20 contests off of the bench. A member of Finland's national team during this past summer, the forward has steadily improved her game. Her quickness helps her make an impact with the Crusaders defensively.
A host of sophomores have a year's experience under their belts for the Crusaders heading into the 2006-2007 season, and will be called upon heavily to step up and contribute.
Launa Hochstetler will lead the offense for the Crusaders at the point. As a rookie, Hochstetler came off of the bench in 27 games to dish out 2.1 assists per contest. She was proficient from the free throw line as well, making 80.8% of her attempts.
Agnieszka Kulaga is another quick guard in the Crusader rotation. She played for Poland this past summer in the European Championships, averaging 10.9 points and 3.6 rebounds per game for her home country. With Valpo last year, she saw action in 18 games, and showed signs of what may come, exploding for 10 points off of the bench against UMKC.
Aimee Litka also had a solid freshman campaign for the Crusaders last year, and will be called upon for more of the same in 2006-2007. A forward, she scored a season-high 13 points off of the bench last year at Oakland. Litka can also step outside and hit the three, making 36.1% of her tries as a rookie. This year, she will be relied upon for an even bigger role.
Redshirt-sophomore Sarah Ott will be relied upon this year in the post to help add depth to the Valpo lineup. She has rebounded from a knee injury that kept her sidelined during her first year on the roster, and played in 11 games last season. Her constant improvement will be called upon this year to help the Crusaders throughout the season.
Another redshirt-sophomore, Evva Comans, will also need to step up inside for the Brown and Gold. In her first season last year, she came off of the bench 14 times and averaged a rebound per contest. She added to her experience as well this past summer, also playing in the European Championships, helping her homeland of Belgium to a fifth place finish overall.
Leah Hochstetler, Launa's twin sister, also returns for her second season in the Valpo backcourt. She got a taste of collegiate experience last year, coming in off of the bench 11 times, and will look to contribute even more this season.
Valpo's freshman class is a small, but talented one for the upcoming campaign. With just three seniors graduating from last year's squad, Freeman added just that same number of players to the roster this year.
Center Katie Emig was an Honorable Mention All-State selection in Michigan last year for Birmingham Marian High School, where she led her team to a regional runner-up finish. A two-time All-Catholic League selection during her prep years, Emig led her high school to a combined 37-11 record over her final two years in the program. She will be called upon to add a physical presence to the Valpo lineup.
A pair of guards also join the roster this season. Whitney Farris led Kokomo High School to the state championship during her freshman season as well as a pair of regional titles each of the past two years as well. A versatile outside player, she could play three different positions on the court this year for the Brown and Gold.
A local product, Kelly Peller, also joins the Valpo backcourt for the upcoming season. The second all-time leading scorer at Chesterton High School, she was a Second Team All-State selection in Indiana. She also helped lead the Trojans to the sectional title during her senior campaign.
The freshmen will get their first taste of collegiate experience at a high level with some challenging games to open the season. The Crusaders open the regular season with back-to-back games on the road against Big Ten foes, beginning November 10 at Northwestern. The Crusaders then head to Indiana before hosting Northern Arizona on November 17 in the home opener.
Valpo will also entertain nationally-ranked Notre Dame at the Athletics-Recreation Center to highlight a home schedule which also includes Bradley and Central Michigan.
The Crusaders will also travel to Akron, Northern Iowa, and future Horizon League foe Loyola (Chicago) as part of the non-conference slate, while also participating in a pair of single day classics. Valpo will face Indiana State in the annual Hoosier State Classic hosted by Butler while facing instate foe Ball State at Hoopla: A Celebration of Women's Basketball.
The conference schedule begins against preseason favorite Oral Roberts on January 6 while IUPUI marks Valpo's home conference opener a week later. The Brown and Gold concludes the regular season with a four-game homestand, ending the campaign on February 26 against Southern Utah.
The Mid-Con Tournament is set for March 3-6 in Tulsa, Okla. where the Crusaders will hope to vie for one final conference crown.
The talent is in place for yet another exciting year of Valpo women's basketball. A wealth of top-notch returnees combine with a premier group of newcomers hoping to take the Crusaders to the next level.
Health will be a question for the Brown and Gold, like it is with any team hoping to contend for a league title. If Valpo can remain healthy throughout the season, and get contributions from throughout the team, it should be an exciting year at the Athletics-Recreation Center as well as throughout the Mid-Continent Conference. The only question that remains is will Valpo be in the hunt come March for yet another conference title?