Mike Roysland doesn’t have any particular games circled on his calendar this year.
It’s not that Roysland doesn’t care that his Golden Eagles were picked to finish 14th out of 16 teams in the NSIC’s preseason poll. It’s not as if Roysland isn’t using that as motivation for his team, that he doesn’t see big games as a chance to address a statement to the doubters. Rather, the Minnesota Crookston women’s basketball coach wants to keep the focus internal.
From most other coaches, that could easily be written off as preseason filler. Not Roysland. After last season, he knows full well that there’s only so much his team can dictate, and he wants to take advantage of it.
“We had four players that went down, three that were playing major minutes for us, and one of our freshman didn't get to play last year,” Roysland said. “Without trying to make any excuses, I thought our kids did a remarkable job of hanging in there and staying as close as we could, but we just did not have enough down the stretch.”
The Golden Eagles had one of their best-ever starts in 2018-19, winning 10 out of their first 18. They then dropped their last 11, right as the aforementioned injury bug set in. Eight of those 11 defeats stemmed from blown fourth-quarter leads. None of these facts can be discussed separately.
Not only did Minnesota Crookston lack the services of contributors Abby Guidinger, Stephanie McWilliams and Mary Burke during the grind of conference play, it was forced to stretch its healthy players thin, costing it in both the short and long term.
“We did not have enough depth to keep people fresh the way that you needed to do,” Roysland said. “It's like a double edged sword. Either you wore them out, or if I had to go too far to the bench, we lost ground.”
In the long, long term, however, the Golden Eagles did benefit from their tribulations.
An ideal world wouldn’t have seen five freshmen rank among Minnesota Crookston’s top 11 minutes-getters. Instead of easing into prominent roles, Kylie Post, Bren Fox, Paige Cornale, Kylea Praska and Julia Peplinski had to learn on the fly. Out of necessity, the group squeezed two methodical years of development into one trying one.
“We got a lot of young kids that played a lot of valuable minutes,” Roysland said. “Our returners have played a lot, so I think that with the addition of the four incoming freshmen that we have, we really have as much depth in our program as we've had since I've been here.”
Again, that’s a cliche to most others, but it’s obvious why Roysland means it now.
The Golden Eagles graduated All-NSIC first teamer Isieoma Odor and Caitlin Michaelis, who scored 44 percent of their points a season ago. It’s hard to see two players doing the same thing this year. Depth is Minnesota Crookston’s selling point now. Roysland said that the Golden Eagles will replace Odor by committee, and that’s not merely because they don’t have much of a choice.
Instead, Guidinger, Burke and McWilliams are back healthy, as is senior sharpshooter Paige Weakley. Instead of trying to force a set-in-stone starting lineup, Roysland can keep rotating to find lineup combinations that work.
Last year’s freshmen are veterans now and improved in every facet. And instead of being thrown into the fire, the current crop of freshmen comes in preparing to play right away, having been praised by Roysland as “fast learners” who can contribute a little of everything.
“One of the biggest things is that they all have a good high basketball IQ,” Roysland said. “I think our returners have done a really great job of trying to get them up to speed just as fast as they can.”
Minnesota Crookston can’t know when the injury bug will strike again. But Roysland can, at least, ready his squad for when it does. The depth he’s extolled and cultivated is a reaction to last year’s adversity.
And that much is under the Golden Eagles’ control.