Huntington, Ind. - After a grueling, tough-luck season, the Huntington University women’s basketball team, which returns seven of its top eight scorers, is ready to challenge for a Mid-Central Conference championship.
“I’m excited about this year,” said Foresters coach Lori Culler, who is entering her 26th year at the controls. “We’ve got a lot of talent coming back. We ended well last year, and we’re anxious to pick up where we left off and take it up a notch. I’m excited to see what this group can accomplish.”
Huntington’s 2010-11 season was one of turmoil. In the middle of the campaign, the Foresters suspended seven players for violating the school’s Student Code of Conduct, forcing the squad to pick up players off campus and even play a conference game with just six players in uniform — a game they won in overtime.
During the tough stretch, the Foresters leaned on their big three: Kelsey Green, Sarah Miller and Lauren Meese, all of whom are back this season.
“A lot of different people had to step up last year,” Culler said. “Sarah, Lauren and Kelsey are three that were there for the entire time through all of that. They found out a little more about themselves and what they were made of. I can’t help but think they gained confidence from that situation. Some of the things they went through are things you don’t easily forget.”
As if losing seven players wasn’t cruel enough, once the Foresters got back to playing with a full deck of cards, Green, a double-double player and First Team All-MCC selection, was lost for the season with a wrist injury.
Still, the Foresters found a way to advance to the second round of the MCC Tournament and finish with a 19-11 record. Coaches around the conference recognized Culler’s superb coaching job as they voted her MCC Coach of the Year.
While the hectic, chaotic season easily could have ripped the team apart, Huntington used the opportunity to become an even tighter group.
“Relationships were strengthened through it all when things could’ve easily gone the other way,” Culler said. “The players that were suspended are much more committed to being the kind of representative of Huntington University they need to be. The challenge in those situations is to try and make something positive out of something negative, and a lot of positives have come out of it.”
The trio of Green, Miller and Meese will once again lead the way for the Foresters. The three served as team captains last season and Culler is looking for them to provide quality leadership for the team again this year.
“Kelsey, Sarah and Lauren each took on a new role as captain a year ago and I think they did a great job of providing their teammates with a positive example on and off the court,” said Culler. “I expect them to be even more outspoken this season in holding their teammates accountable to the standards we have for our program.”
Green, a senior, is coming off a stellar junior season where she averaged 13.3 points and 10.6 rebounds while hitting 58 percent of her shots. The NAIA Honorable Mention All-American also finished in the top 10 in NAIA Division II in two rebounding categories – 9th in offensive rebounds per game (4.125) and total rebounds per game (10.625).
“Kelsey had a fabulous junior year that unfortunately got cut short with her season-ending injury,” stated Culler. “I’m fully expecting her to pick up where she left off and again be a model of consistency for the team.”
Miller elevated her game to a new level last season, pouring in 16.3 points per contest and willing the team through its rough patch. Through the teams’ first 10 games, Miller was scoring at a 13.7 clip and raised it to 21.7 through the stretch of seven games when Culler only had five or six players at her disposal.
“Sarah’s leadership on the court through our mid-season difficulties was incredible. She put us on her back and carried us. Her mental toughness and desire was a catalyst for us being able to compete and win in some situations where we really had no business winning.”
Running the show as the team’s point guard, Meese, a junior, contributes across the board. Meese averaged 9.4 points, 5.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 3.1 steals — all while playing nearly 38 minutes per night.
“Lauren has had two outstanding years at the point for us and I know she’s determined to raise her game another notch as a junior. She has contributed to the team’s success in so many ways and I’m anxious to see where her play will help take us this year.”
Junior Allison Greene and the sophomore trio of Taylor Foley, Pazia Speed and Amy Kramer return to the fold.
Playing mostly as a reserve, Greene scored 8.8 points per game and led the Foresters in 3-point percentage with a 34 percent mark from beyond the arc. Foley averaged 5.8 points and 4.3 rebounds, while Kramer — who battled injuries over the summer — was good for 5.8 points and 4.0 boards per game. Speed, a guard, shot 40 percent from the field on her way to averages of 6.7 points and 3.6 rebounds.
Huntington supplements its already solid nucleus with four talented freshmen. Courtney Baker (New Castle), Liesl Davenport (Huntington), Casey Stow (Fairland, Ind.) and Amelia Echemann (Downers Grove, Ill.) make up a four-deep recruiting class, all of whom have the ability to make an early impact, according to Culler.
With the return of seven players who got key minutes a year ago and the addition of four promising rookies, Culler said this season’s team is “deeper than we’ve ever been.”
“My challenge is going to be to get everyone playing time who deserves it,” she added. “It’s going to be great for our practices. Practice should be very competitive. I’m looking forward to that. It will do nothing but help us.”
Culler expects the conference to be tough as always, but loves the fact that her roster is littered with players who understand what it takes to win in the MCC.
“You try to tell the freshmen this is how it’s going to be, but until they go through it, they don’t fully understand how mentally and physically tough you have to be to compete in this conference,” Culler said. “Our players have experience. They know what to expect. We have three great leaders in Kelsey, Sarah and Lauren that have been through it all and are determined to get us back to Sioux City, Iowa in March.”
Submitted by Austan Kas, Herald Press