With a new season just underway, there are no shortage of reasons for excitement surrounding the Valparaiso University women’s basketball program. Last week brought with it four new reasons for enthusiasm, as a quartet of high school seniors signed National Letters of Intent to join the program for the 2017-2018 season.
The incoming recruiting class is comprised of 6-foot-2 forward Ella Ellenson (Rice Lake, Wis. / Rice Lake), 5-9 guard Nicole Konieczny (Granger, Ind. / South Bend Saint Joseph), 6-0 guard Taylor Richards (Doylestown, Ohio / Chippewa) and 6-2 forward Bryce Blood (Toledo, Ohio / Whitmer).
“The goal for us was to make sure we added more size and speed, just like we did for this season,” head coach Tracey Dorow said. “We wanted to make sure we added at least one combo guard. We wanted to have at least two kids that can run the point for us. We added one this year, but we wanted to add some depth at that position.”
The Valpo staff wanted to bolster the team’s versatility with this recruiting class.
Dorow and her staff believes the program has strung together several strong recruiting classes in a row, a trend they are confident will continue with the incoming freshmen.
“We’re no longer just recruiting players that we think can be on our roster,” recruiting coordinator and assistant coach Justin Rees said. “We’re recruiting players we think can come in and compete for starting spots right away. Players who will be in the conversation for Horizon League Freshman of the Year and all-freshman team.”
Ellenson, who averaged 15.4 points per game and 7.5 rebounds per game as a high school junior, has a last name basketball fans may recognize. Her brother Henry is a member of the Detroit Pistons after a successful collegiate career at Marquette.
Dorow raves about Ellenson’s athleticism, length, mobility and versatility.
“Ella’s decision was a little bit of a surprise,” Dorow said. “When she came to campus in early August, she seemed to love every part of it. At the time, I wasn’t sure what she was thinking because she’s kind of quiet, a little bit more reserved. Everything fell into place while she was on the visit. She literally committed right after we offered her.”
Dorow expects Ellenson to get stronger and have the ability to play the 2, 3 and 4 positions for the Crusaders.
“My strength is my versatility,” Ellenson said. “I can shoot a quick 3, post up, run quickly down the court. I can push the ball. I play hard and definitely bring some energy.”
Ellenson echoed the idea that her campus visit made all the difference in her college decision.
“I just like the small, close community,” Ellenson said. “I really like the coaches. They’re super nice. Talking and being with the girls on the first day really sold it too. I liked it and connected with them.”
Ellenson’s accolades include three-time Big River all-conference team and all-Northwest Team in 2015-16. She was her team’s leading scorer in each of the last two seasons and the squad’s leading rebounder in each of her first three prep campaigns.
Konieczny, who scored 12.5 points per game as a junior at South Bend Saint Joseph last season, is originally from LaPorte, Ind. As a local resident, she visited Valpo’s campus with regularity during her youth.
“I love the family and community feeling at Valpo,” Konieczny said. “I came to Valpo quite often. I’ve been around the campus a lot, so I could see that it wasn’t just an act people were putting on. It was the real deal. It’s something I wanted to be part of.”
The feeling was mutual, as Dorow expressed clear delight about having Konieczny join the program.
“She’s a competitor every time she steps on the floor,” Dorow said. “She’s involved in every play. When you turn around, she’s diving for a loose ball or she’s getting a rebound and scoring. She’s passing to someone who’s scoring. She’s a kid that you might not notice being flashy, but she’s always right there.”
Konieczny was heavily recruited by out-of-state programs, but wanted the chance to stay close enough to see her brothers grow up and allow her parents to be able to watch her play. She also felt a strong connection to her future Crusader teammates.
“We’re all so similar,” she said. “We all value the same things. We get along very well. They welcomed me and made me feel like part of the team. That feeling was huge in my decision.”
Konieczny’s long list of accolades includes Indiana Junior All-Star, first-team Duneland Athletic Conference, first-team Northern Indiana conference, Northern Indiana Underclassmen of the Year, IBCA Subway Player of the Week, Burger King Outstanding Student-Athlete of the Month, IBCA Supreme 15 Underclassmen Team and all-tournament team at the TCU Lady Tiger Classic.
She has also helped her team to sectional, regional and conference championships. St. Joseph qualified for semistate last year.
Richards finished her junior season at Chippewa High School averaging 10.1 points and 5.1 assists per game. An honor roll student and member of National Honor Society, Richards is a three-year letterwinner for the Chipps. She comes to Valpo focused on the goal of helping the program become a conference championship contender.
“I think they look like they have what it takes now,” Richards said. “When we watch their practice, everyone is pushing each other to get better. Our class can do that too. We can give them an extra push.”
Richards finished her junior season with the most assists and best free-throw percentage on her team. She was a member of the WCAL first team, OHSBCA District 4 First Team, NEO Inlands Division 3 honorable mention, All Daily Record second team and OHSBCA scholarship society.
“Taylor is a work horse,” Dorow said. “She wants to get in the gym all the time. She’s similar as far as body build to Abby Dean, where she’s that quick, athletic kid that can shoot the 3, drive and score. She’s also a distributor and can run the point all the way through the four position because of her size. She’s used to winning. She understands the challenges we’ve had in the past and wants to come in and make an impact.”
Richards, who helped her team to the state final four during her sophomore season, had little trouble making up her mind as to which college she would attend.
“The deciding factor was definitely the feeling I got when I was there,” she said. “I got a gut feeling that it was the right place. There was nothing negative about it. I had a positive feeling and everyone was very welcoming.”
Blood averaged 12.7 points and 9.7 rebounds a year ago at Whitmer, a program with a winning tradition that Blood hopes to bring with her to Valpo.
“That’s definitely going to help me coming to Valpo,” she said. “I want to help everyone achieve what I’ve achieved in the past. I like how it feels to win. I’m really good inside and I’m really good looking open for other guards. I like having the ball and looking down the court and seeing how I can help the team in any way.”
Blood, a member of her school’s National Honor Society, ranks in the top 11 in Whitmer program history in six statistical categories. She has shattered school records for rebounds in a single game (17), blocks in a single season (74) and blocks in a game (9). As a junior, she was all-district first team, all-league first team and all-league academic team. She was also named to the Rock Holiday Tournament all-tournament team.
“She’s played at an elite level for AAU, so she’s played with and against a lot of elite players,” Dorow said. “She’s not intimidated by people. We expect her to come in and be that banger. She’s a good facilitator and a good passer from inside. She’s not a post player, she wants to see the ball go inside out. She wanted to come to a good academic school as well, and she’s excited about what we have to offer.”
What They’re Saying About the 2017-18 Freshmen Class
SMAC coach Carlos Shea-Ron on Bryce Blood: “The young woman is always humble. I’ve never seen her yell at a teammate; I’ve never heard her swear. Her parents have done a great job raising her. She’s engaging, she’s polite. In this day and age, it’s refreshing to coach a young person that is so mature, yet so humble. It’s going to be fun to watch her engage herself in the Valpo community. She’s going to be a beacon of energy.”
Chippewa High School coach Denny Schrock on Taylor Richards: “She’s very durable. After this season, she will have played right around 110 games for me in four years. She’s always started; she was a starter as a freshman. She’s a student of the game, she comes in at 6 a.m. to work out. She has a 4.4 GPA, and that carries over to basketball too. She’s 6-foot tall, and her arms are longer than mine. Her length really helps her on the court.”
Hoosier Premiere AAU coach Kevin Brandy on Nicole Konieczny: “She’s a fierce competitor with a great motor. She’s someone who’s encouraging and uplifting to her teammates. She’s someone you can build a program around. One thing that really stood out to her about Valpo was Coach Dorow and her faith and passion for the game. They share those commonalities. Valpo’s been there since Day 1. It was a privilege to coach her, and I look forward to watching her play at the next level.”
Rice Lake High School Coach Darla Olson on Ella Ellenson: “She’s that 6-foot-2 kid that can handle the basketball in the open floor as well as a half-court setting. She can play anything from the one to the four in high school and probably anything from the two to the four in college. When I heard she was going to Valpo, I knew that would be a really good fit for her. Her motto is to play hard and have fun. She writes it on her shoes; she lives by that. She enjoys life and likes to smile. Kids respect that about her.”