On Feb. 22, the four-win Minnesota Crookston women’s basketball team beat St. Cloud State. Ten days later, St. Cloud State won the NSIC Tournament.

“(We) must have aggravated them,” quipped Mike Roysland last Thursday.

And if the Golden Eagles’ coach has it his way, Feb. 22 will be remembered as a turning point for not one, but both teams that met at Lysaker Gymnasium that day.

To properly put that game in context: last season, Minnesota Crookston graduated two seniors — Isieoma Odor and Caitlin Michaelis — who were responsible for 43 percent of the Golden Eagles’ scoring. One of their three seniors coming into 2019-20, Stephanie McWilliams, was ruled out before the season began, and another, Paige Weakley, tore her ACL in January. By the last game of the season (an 87-54 loss at Minnesota State in the NSIC Tournament) eight of UMC’s top nine rotation players were underclassmen.

From the outside looking in, this was a rebuilding year for Minnesota Crookston — though the Golden Eagles avoided using that term. A veritable mountain of factors came between them and competing, but they ignored that mountain entirely, eschewing the solace and excuses that come with the word “rebuild.” They didn’t expect to go 5-22 this season and 4-18 in conference play, and it stung massively when they did.

The close calls piled up from the beginning. UMC took Northwest Missouri State, Augustana and Mary down to the wire. It came within seconds of beating 26-6 Minnesota Duluth on the road. By the time February rolled around, the Golden Eagles were all in agreement: enough is enough. Beating St. Cloud State wasn’t a shock, but an affirmation of what they always believed they were capable of.

“Close but not good enough, and I think it bothered us all,” Roysland said. “We could have been so much better if we had just been able to finish at the rim a few games, free throws cost us a couple games, there was a lot of lost opportunities that I think everyone was frustrated with.

“ … They were saying, ‘We have got to find a way to win.’ That came from within them. That’s just a credit to their attitude and their willingness to work.”

In interviews after the season, Roysland noticed a theme: motivation. To a woman, the Golden Eagles have held themselves accountable for the little inconsistencies that cost them this season.

“I think they have a real good handle on (it), that they did not perform (to) their expectations of themselves,” Roysland said. “The only remedy to that is more reps, more hard work, not taking anything for granted. Fom all indications, they seem very motivated about not only their individual skill sets but for the whole team skill set to get better.

“One thing that they have taken responsibility for is that they need to be better and instead of putting blame someplace else. ... I think every player has done a fabulous job of trying to take responsibility for their own actions. It’s easy for people to say all the right things, but to be actually able to get out and do the right things, their mindset is that they wanna do more.”

The closest Roysland comes to acknowledging the obvious is his assessment of his team’s experience. He prefers his teams to be led by upperclassmen, in the boxscore and the locker room. Talented underclassmen are a luxury: if a freshman gets playing time, it’s only at moments where she can succeed.

That wasn’t the case this year, in Emma Carpenter, Alyssa Peterson and Mattea Vetsch had no choice but to play prominent roles. Instead of their skills being amplified in select situations, their lack of readiness was just as apparent as their flashes. That’s the way it goes for most freshmen — except this all was taking place on the court in real time, instead of exclusively in practice.

Carpenter’s court vision is already elite, but she’s still figuring out how to be a true scorer. For Peterson, who Roysland says spends more time in the gym than any other player, it’s about general consistency. Vetsch is learning how to attack off the dribble in order to complement her shooting. They won’t be finished products next year, but they’ll be on the right track.

“Now these players know what the landscape’s about,” Roysland said. “You can’t explain that to them, they have to go through that and we’re real hopeful with that moving forward.”

What Roysland is hoping to do now is to re-establish the top-down culture he once had. He believes wings Abby Guidinger and Ashley Freund, next year’s seniors, are willing to set the tone and sacrifice for the team in that regard. He thinks guard Kylie Post, who scored 20 points in the upset over the Huskies, is readying herself to take on a prominent leadership role as a junior. He’s impressed with the way rising junior post players Bren Fox and Julia Peplinski improved down the stretch. He’s looking forward to big things from Mary Burke after a redshirt freshman season in which she was the Golden Eagles’ leading scorer.

This, coupled with the development of Carpenter, Peterson and Vetsch, means that when the time comes, incoming freshmen Eden Golliher, Haylie Wheeler and Jes Mertens will be ready to take the torch, rather than having to catch it before they’re prepared.

“What all these freshmen will do is keep raising the level of the program that everybody has to continue to get better,” Roysland said. “ … You just wanna see them grow in situations. Hopefully they don't have to be thrown into the fire, they can work their way into the fire.”

If this proves to be the case next year, it will be a sign that Minnesota Crookston’s rebuilding process is taking steps forward.

Ultimately, Roysland’s assessment of his team this season was simple — “they were a great group to coach, we just weren’t good enough.” But the Golden Eagles showed plenty of flashes, not least a highlight win on Senior Day over the eventual conference champion.

Now, in the coming months, they’ll have the chance to truly build on them.

“For us, it was a rollercoaster season,” Roysland said. “ … But I really do feel that the future’s bright.”

The Times welcomes your feedback. You can send any comments or questions to our office at (218) 281-2730, Jacob Shames (405) 496-0168 or by email at jshames@crookstontimes.com.

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