Golden Eagles hoping for improvement from deep, young returning core
The hard part might be over for the Minnesota Crookston women's basketball team.
After losing their two leading scorers — Isieoma Odor and Caitlin Michaelis — to graduation after the 2018-19 season, and two more seniors (Stephanie McWilliams and Paige Weakley) who suffered season-ending injuries, the Golden Eagles struggled through a 5-22 season (4-18 Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference) with underclassmen making up the bulk of the team's rotation.
From the crucible of a rebuilding year, however, returns 95 percent of UMC's scoring and 93 percent of its minutes — now with one more year of experience.
The Golden Eagles were picked to finish eighth in the NSIC North this season. If they're to exceed expectations, there's a clear reason why they could.
"We have some kids that have had a lot of minutes, and we had a lot of freshmen that had their first go-around," said head coach Mike Roysland. "They were able to really get their feet wet, get thrown into the fire."
In the fire, the young Golden Eagles did just about all you could ask for. They played down-to-the-wire games against Minnesota Duluth and the University of Mary, for starters, and actually pulled off wins against Wayne State and St. Cloud State (the Huskies, just two weeks after falling to UMC, went on to win the NSIC Tournament).
But this season, there won't be an excuse for damning statistics such as shooting just 37.8 percent from the field and 29.1 percent from 3-point range. Or 16 turnovers per game. Or failing to have a single player average double-digits scoring.
What there will be, however, is hope that Abby Guidinger (8.1 ppg) and Ashley Freund (34.8 3-point percentage) can be the senior leaders the Golden Eagles still need. Hope that juniors Kylie Post (7.0 ppg), Bren Fox (6.7 rpg), Julia Peplinski (6.8 ppg) and Paige Cornale (3.2 ppg) show that they're next in line. Hope that Mary Burke (9.2 ppg), Alyssa Peterson (6.1 ppg) and Emma Carpenter (1.7 apg) can make sophomore leaps. Hope that freshmen Jes Mertens, Eden Golliher and Haylee Wheeler give UMC depth as they sit back and learn, something that last year's freshmen didn't have the luxury of doing.
"They wanna show people that we were better than what we were last year," Roysland said. "I think everybody's all bought in at this particular point. They're all in, as far as being about the team. It's not about who's gonna shoot, who's gonna stand out. It's about how the team does."
The Golden Eagles don't project to have one star this season, but if everything goes right and they can maximize on the flashes they showed last season, pieces are all around.
UMC won't lose games due to a lack of depth, nor will it lose because of imbalance. It returns seven players from last season who averaged between 15 and 25 minutes per game. And while the Golden Eagles averaged just 62 points per game, their leading scorers, Burke and Guidinger, didn't take significantly more shots than the rest of the team.
What Minnesota Crookston has, at present, is a core group and the first inklings of an identity. The next step along that road comes with eliminating the mistakes and inconsistency that were on display last season.
When the Golden Eagles lost close contests in 2019-20, the reasons why weren't always the same from game to game. Poor free-throw shooting down the stretch hurt them in a 68-67 road loss at Minnesota Duluth. In a 66-64 early-season defeat to Northwest Missouri State, it was a 3-of-15 performance from deep. A 77-73 loss to Mary on Jan. 25 could be chalked up to 20 turnovers.
The lack of an overarching theme means that this wasn't a team with one or two fatal flaws, but a squad still striving to find its way. For the most part, the Golden Eagles shared the ball, got to the line and worked together on defense. While they displayed solid fundamentals and did everything good basketball teams try to do, they only executed sporadically.
"We had some really good games, but we just didn't finish games out," Roysland said. "I really do think the mindset is different. We gotta play it all the way through. And then there were times we really didn't play very well. There were times where players had great opportunities to put us in spots to win but didn't finish plays, or we didn't get a stop or a rebound. As we look back, we wanna try to change that."
But if the Golden Eagles improve on their record this season, it won't merely be because they're a year older and have almost their entire team returning. It will be because that entire returning team is improved on an individual basis, having taken the 10 months between their last game and their Jan. 2 season opener at Concordia-St. Paul to work on their games and their rapport with each other.
"The focus and the attitude's all been in the right spot," Roysland said. "There are players that have definitely gotten better."
It won't be long before Minnesota Crookston gets the chance to back those words up on the court.
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