1993 NCAA Div. III champions
2013-14 overall record: 11-14
Conference record/finish: 3-11 (seventh place)
Letterwinners lost: 5
Letterwinners returning: 7
Starters lost: 2 (Jessy Stika, Katie Sunderman)
Starters returning: 3 (Kenzie Vander Molen, Rachel Evans, Emily Neff)
All-Iowa Conference players returning:1 (Kenzie Vander Molen)
Top returning scorer: Kenzie Vander Molen, 16.2 ppg
Top returning rebounder: Rachel Evans, 5.8 rpg
With promising back-to-back recruiting classes, combined with some talented returning veterans, the Central College women’s basketball is looking to continue its rise to contender status.
Chelsea Petersen took over as head coach last year and got off to an encouraging start. Central’s 11-14 campaign marked the highest win total since 2004 for the traditionally strong program, which has produced six Iowa Conference championships and five NCAA Division III tournament berths.
Central returns seven letterwinners for 2014-15, including its top scorer and rebounder as Petersen heads into her second season.
“Last year provided a strong foundation and we look forward to building upon that foundation this season,” she said.
Petersen has assembled her second consecutive highly regarded recruiting class. She brought in 13 freshmen who she believes are meshing well with the upperclassmen.
“Overall, the team is extremely hard working and we have great team chemistry,” said Petersen. “Each practice has become more intense and competitive. Ultimately, it’s about being able to put together a complete 40-minute game by February, and players are completing necessary steps now to ensure that happens.”
The Dutch plan on being successful by taking care of the basketball and making their opponents work hard for every point.
“Our goal is to compete every day and bring a high level of intensity and positivity,” said Petersen. “We will be in games by focusing on aggressive, lock-down defense, limiting turnovers, and doing all the little things.”
The Dutch had a guard-heavy roster last year and six of Central’s returning letterwinners are in the backcourt. First-team all-Iowa Conference and third-team D3hoops.com All-West Region pick Kenzie Vander Molen, a 5-foot-7 guard, returns for her senior season after leading the Dutch in scoring last season. She more than doubled her scoring average from 7.1 points per game as a sophomore to 16.2 as a junior. Vander Molen also led the team in assists last season with 82.
“Kenzie is a phenomenal guard and a solid overall player because of all the little things she is capable of doing,” said Petersen. “Her strongest basketball strength is the ability to come off a variety of screens, read the defense off of those screens and make plays to the rim. If she isn’t getting to the rim, she is making plays that shift the defense and create opportunities for her teammates.”
Also returning is scrappy senior Rachel Evans, who averaged 10.3 points and a team-high 5.8 rebounds per game last season.
“Rachel’s role will be to come into games during times when we need to lock down certain players, produce turnovers, and make key defensive stops,” Petersen said.
The Dutch backcourt suffered a blow with the loss of 5-11 sophomore off-guard Emily Neff, who started all 25 games as a freshman. She suffered a season-ending injury prior to the start of practice. But Central simultaneously regains the services of 5-7 junior Kaitlin Stump at the same position. Stump, who transferred to Central prior to her sophomore season, quickly became one of the team’s top players, scoring almost 10 points per game in 11 non-conference contests before being sidelined by injury the rest of the way.
“Kaitlin is competing at an extremely high level during practices,” Petersen said. “She is an incredibly competitive player, who makes everyone around her better by continuously pushing herself and her teammates to their own individual limits."
Lauren Sharp, a 5-8 senior, returns with a leadership role.
“Lauren is doing a fantastic job in her role as a team captain,” Petersen said. “She is constantly talking to teammates during practice and encouraging younger teammates to improve their individual games outside of practice times. Individually, she has greatly improved her game over the course of the offseason and is a very versatile player due to her high basketball IQ and the number of positions she is able to play.”
Abbie Agan, a 5-3 sophomore, appeared in 16 games as a freshman.
“Abbie is another player who has made great improvements to her game,” Petersen said. “She had the opportunity to develop during her freshman season by playing against Kenzie (Vander Molen) every practice. I know this was a process that sometimes frustrated her, but it was a challenge that has greatly impacted and improved her skill-set. Abbie is currently seeing the floor well, pushing the ball in transition, and talking her teammates through various offensive looks.”
Petersen said 5-6 sophomore Mariah Swartzentruber and 5-10 sophomore Savanna Thornton bring offensive punch.
“Mariah and Savanna are the strongest shooting guards on the squad,” Petersen said. “We have a nice combination of guards with various skill-sets. This is important for the way it opens up the court and forces opposing defenses to guard possessions honestly. Mariah and Savanna will do a great job knocking down perimeter shots for us when they have the opportunity to do so.”
But there’s strength in the freshmen guard candidates as well.
“In our incoming class we have quite a few guards who are doing really good things in the gym right now,” Petersen said. “As long as they approach each practice with the goal of working hard and getting better, they will improve every week and develop nicely over the course of the season.”
Petersen brought in some much-needed size, with five new post players joining the program.
But the Dutch also regain the services of 6-0 senior Bry Pierce, who is back after spending the spring semester in Europe through Central College Abroad. She averaged five points and 4.5 rebounds as a starter before leaving in early January.
“From an athletic perspective, Bry has an incredibly strong build,” said Petersen. “She has the ability to do things in the post and make really strong moves to the basket because of her overall strength.”
As Central’s most experienced post player, Pierce is aiding the growth of the younger players.
“I’ve worked with Bry in the post for several seasons” said Petersen, who coached Pierce as an assistant for a year before taking over as head coach last season. “She has an understanding of expectations and is very familiar with the drills we do. I think the most important thing Bry is bringing to the team right now is the ability to serve as a mentor to our younger post players. Not only is Bry talking to other posts on the sidelines during times when she is out of the rotation, but she is also improving their games by being the most challenging post player they have to defend and make moves against.”
Central will also receive contributions from 5-8 sophomore Jessi Butters, who saw time on the court in 10 games as a freshman. Petersen said Butters helps the team in intangible ways.
“Jessi brings a great overall enthusiasm every day,” Petersen said. “Just from the standpoint of having a positive attitude, she impacts the team in an extremely valuable way.”
But the Dutch should get some immediate help from the newcomers as well.
“We have a lot of good post players with a lot of good length and athleticism,” Petersen said.
The Dutch will play a challenging non-conference schedule to help them prepare for Iowa Conference play. Central will battle teams from six different states and make trips to Nebraska, Minnesota and Missouri. Petersen believes the structure of this year’s non-conference schedule will benefit the entire roster.
“I think it gives our young players an opportunity to step in and get some game experience,” said Petersen. “It allows our upperclassmen to grow in their leadership roles and to really become comfortable with the underclassmen. Through the non-conference portion of the schedule, our goal is to mature as a team and improve every night.”
The Dutch begin their 14-game conference slate Jan. 7 at the University of Dubuque. Petersen said the conference race is wide open.
“The best thing we can do is really prepare for those games and put ourselves in a position to be in games in the last five minutes,” said Petersen. “If you are in an Iowa Conference game in the last five minutes, meaning you are within a couple possessions, it’s anyone’s game.”
Petersen likes what she’s seeing thus far.
“The entire team is doing a phenomenal job of approaching each practice with the mindset of winning that day,” Petersen said. “We have really grown together over the first several weeks of practice and the coaching staff attributes that growth to the overall level of positivity and commitment players are exhibiting.”
The program got a big boost when Petersen brought in two new assistant coaches to help her on the sidelines this season. Aaron Nester and Austin Hellbusch are entering in their first seasons at Central but have extensive experience. Nester boasts a strong resume. He spent the past three seasons as the head women’s basketball coach at Oglethorpe University (Ga.) after serving as an assistant coach at Wartburg College and Rockford College (Ill.). He is the West Region chair on the NCAA Division III Women’s Basketball Championship Committee.
“Coach Nester brings a wealth of Division III coaching experience, has a deep knowledge of the Iowa Conference and has really connected with the student-athletes in our program,” Petersen said. “His biggest strength is his overall knowledge of x’s and o’s. This allows us to make adjustments to practice plans and really focus on offensive and defensive strategies that best fit our personnel.”
Petersen likes what Hellbusch brings to the table as well.
“Coach Hellbusch has a deep love and understanding for the game of basketball and is doing an excellent job working with our players,” Petersen said. “He will continue to grow throughout the course of this season as he becomes more and more familiar with the pace of the collegiate game. I know our players will love playing for him."
The pieces are in place for the Dutch to make a leap forward in 2014-15, Petersen said.
“The bottom line is that success in anything--coaching, business, etc.--it all starts with getting the right people,” she said. “If you get the right people and put them into a system that works, you are going to have success. I am confident the Central College women’s basketball program has the right combination of players and coaches to make strong improvements over the course of this season."
Central will tip off its season at Grinnell Nov. 15 at 2 p.m.