Lady Vikings want to return to 2000 form
Early in the 2000-01 campaign, the Missouri Valley College women's basketball team was humming.
The Lady Vikings, after finishing second in the Heart of America Conference the previous season, rolled out to a 8-2 start which catapulted them to 13th in the NAIA Division II rankings -- the program's highest berth ever. They seemed well on their way to again contending for the league crown.
Then talented point guard Rasheeda Akram was declared ineligible, followed by forward Sherrita Locke. Post Pam Burris was lost for a few games, as were the team's top two scorers: guard Angie Cravey and forward Nancy Dehn, two all-conference players. At one point, only eight were in uniform for Valley (19-15, 9-11 HAAC), which won just 11 of its last 24 games.
"If we had everybody healthy, then you'd want to know the reasons why," conceded fourth-year MVC head coach Bill Wolf. "With all the injuries we had, it was frustrating. We could have had an excellent season."
Now all five of those players are gone for good -- Cravey and Dehn graduating and the others electing not to return, along with a good perimeter shooter in guard Joy Dorr. But that doesn't mean the Lady Vikings are depleted. A good off-season of recruiting and the return of four players with significant varsity experience may put Valley back in the hunt.
Even with all the difficulties, Wolf was "pleased with the team" last year -- especially with a defensive effort which lowered the points-allowed average from 59.8 to a league-best 57.0 points per game. "We set some goals and achieved many of them."
Even with the departure of Dehn, the Lady Vikings should remain strong in the paint. The presence of 6-foot-3 senior Candice Fields -- the HAAC's top shot-blocker (84), with a 7.8 per-game scoring and 4.5 rebounding averages -- will cause opponents to think before going inside.
Dana Conyers (5-11, Sr.), a three-time all-conference selection, moves from small forward to the post. She's been among the loop's best forwards in all major categories throughout her career -- recording 10.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.1 blocks per game last season -- and has never missed a start.
"She came in when we were at rock bottom and she stayed with it," said Wolf, whose first team completed a string of 48 straight conference losses. As a player and leader, Conyers "is everything a coach would want."
The main backups in the paint will be Gina Brown (6-0, Sr.) -- one of last year's top subs (4.0 ppg, 3.7 rpg) -- and Tali Hofstetter (5-9, Soph.) of Moberly. When she picks up the system, newcomer Megan Williams (5-9, Fr.) from Milwaukee will inject an extra dose of athleticism and JV veteran Syna Walby (5-11, Sr.) adds more leadership.
"A lot of our questions are answered" at post, Wolf said. "I'd be surprised if these girls didn't all have outstanding years."
Taking over for Conyers in the "three" spot will be junior college transfer Dana Earls (5-8, Jr.) of New Orleans, coming off a 15 point-per-game season at Porterville (Calif.).
"She gives us a dimension we've never had there in her ballhandling ability, speed and quickness," Wolf claimed. "She can cut people off at the baseline and is quick to the rebounding position."
Miscast on the point a year ago, former Slater standout Teffany Sample (5-8, Sr.) switches to "off" guard -- where she can penetrate or hit pull-up jumpers. Wolf said "she's really looking good" in her new role.
"Teffany has the ability to get up and down the floor and attack the basket," Wolf said. "Defensively, she's quick. In our zone, she can cover the floor and make things happen."
Sarah Gill (5-8, Soph.) of Southern Boone and Joey Dittmer (5-6, Soph.) of Moberly -- after missing half of the '01 season with an injury -- will spell Sample. Dittmer can also play the point, if necessary -- a sore spot last year. But two newcomers are emerging.
Megan Fong (5-2, Fr.) of Wahiana, Hawaii, is an exciting prospect. Valley's zone defense should protect her from height mismatches. But when Fong has the ball in her hands, watch out. "She may be the quickest ballhandler we've ever had," Wolf remarked.
"You're asking a lot to bring a freshman in, but we're expecting her to be a big contributor," he said. "She can really handle it, is quick and makes great decisions. She could be a great one."
Wolf is also high on Amy Fink (5-3, Jr.) of Drexel, a transfer from Fort Scott (Kan.) Community College. Wolf sees Fink as a consummate "floor general," an intelligent player who passes well and works hard on the defensive end.
There are some others who are new to the program who may also be called on. Forward Maricris Sierra (5-8, Fr.) of Waianae, Hawaii, has been hampered by injuries, as has post Sarah Casaletto (5-10, Jr.) -- who played for MidAmerica Nazarene two years ago. Center Cassondra Pollard (6-2, Fr.) -- the state single-season record-holder in blocked shots last season at Marshall -- and sweet-shooting guard Kristen Allen (5-7, Fr.) from Smith-Cotton have promising futures.
As for the present, Valley was tabbed for sixth place in the preseason coaches' poll -- which Wolf said was "where we should be picked based on losing three starters and with all the new girls we're bringing in." But is that where he expects the Lady Vikings to wind up?
"If all the pieces fall into place, we can stay healthy and have a point guard or two emerge and run the team the way I want to see it run, we can compete for the title," Wolf predicted. "We can be there."