By Ben Hercik, Sports Editor
After a successful campaign last year where the team went 19-11, the women’s basketball team looked to continue that momentum. They would have to do it under new leadership as then Head Coach Kate Peterson Abid, who had led the team for 15 seasons, announced that she was stepping away from the program. The Vikings needed someone new to lead the team, and they found that person in Chris Kielsmeier.
Kielsmeier has been coaching basketball for 19 years at both the division two and three levels, but never at the division one level.
There are many differences between the lower divisions and division one, but the one that Kielsmeier cites as the biggest difference is the help at this level.
“The biggest difference is managing the support staff,” Kielsmeier said. “At this level, you have more resources and more help, but you also have to manage that help. Many people believe that the biggest difference is on the court, but that is not the case.”
The addition of Kielsmeier brought a cloud of uncertainty in the fact that he had never been in this position at this level. One of the questions that is asked when a new coach is brought in is how the players will respond to them.
According to junior guard Mariah Miller, the atmosphere that Kielsmeier has brought in has been one that has taught discipline and development of the players, among many other things.
“Coach has brought in a major focus on discipline this year,” Miller said. “We have also focused on our development as a team on the court. We have also had a lot of focus on developing off the court and focusing on more than just basketball.”
Those teaching points can be seen with how the team has been playing this season. The team currently sits at a 10-14 overall record and 7-6 in Horizon League play, which has the team sitting fifth in the conference standings. One of the reasons for the record this year has been the play of Miller, who is averaging 16.1 points per games, while also grabbing 8.4 rebounds per game. This is a major improvement over her stats from last season, where she only averaged 5 points and 4.6 rebounds per game.
Miller herself has seen improvement, and with the departure of multiple seniors, she knew that she would have the opportunity to step up and become a leader for the team.
“With the departure of multiple seniors, I saw this as a huge opportunity to step up for the team,” Miller said. “For a large part of my summer, I basically lived in the gym, where I focused on what I was good at and making those aspects of my game perfect.”
Miller has shown this improvement in recent games, helping the team win three out of the last four games.
In the game against Detroit Mercy University, Miller almost got a triple double, falling just three assists short, while putting up 17 points and grabbing 16 rebounds. Against Oakland University, she scored 13 points, which was her 18th straight game scoring in double digits. Against University of Illinois – Chicago, Miller scored a new career high with 25 points.
This three-game win streak has built a lot of momentum for the team, and Kielsmeier knows that it is important for the team to build on this momentum so late in the season.
“With so few games remaining in the season, it is very important that we build off of these three wins,” Kielsmeier said. “Our second half [versus Oakland] was the best half that we have played all season. We are good where we’re at, but we need to continue to build in order to become better.”
The team has multiple players performing well this season. Along with Miller, three others are averaging more than 10 points per game. Junior guard Jade Ely, sophomore guard Mariah White and freshman forward Savanna Crockett are helping the team by averaging 14.8, 13.2 and 11.7 respectively. Crockett and senior forward Rachel Slaney are also getting it done on the boards, averaging 8.8 and 6.4 rebounds per game respectively.
While Kielsmeier has been impressed with his team’s performances, he has concerns regarding the team’s consistency. While the team has had many good performances, there have been just as many poor performances. Kielsmeier cites the Oakland game as a great example.
“Our first half in the Oakland game, we were not performing well,” Kielsmeier said. “We then turned around and played our best basketball in the second half of that same game. We have to find a way to play as consistently good as we did in the second half of that game.”
This has been an issue for the team since the beginning of the season. One of the reasons for that is because the team is very young this year. With only two seniors on the team, somebody needed to step up and help lead the younger players. That person was Miller, who thinks she fills the roll thanks to her outspokenness and drive to be a leader.
“I feel like leadership comes naturally to me,” Miller said. “I am a very outspoken person, and I have the drive to be a leader for this team. With all the underclassmen on the team this year, I felt like it was somewhat my responsibility to take those players under my wing and be someone they can look to both on and off the court for help.”
The team’s focus is on the very important late season play as they gear up for the Horizon League Conference Tournament. With the biggest challenge of the season looming in a few weeks, both Miller and Kielsmeier are not intimidated by the challenge, rather welcoming it.
“We are approaching the lead up to the tournament just like we’ve approached the whole season, one game at a time,” Miller said. “Our goal as a team is to be in the top three in the conference, and there is a realistic chance of us doing that before the tournament. If we continue to play like we have been and establish who we are as a team, then we will be just fine in the tournament.”