MARQUETTE - The biggest and most obvious change for the Northern Michigan University women's basketball team this season is the loss of last year's dominant seniors, Chelsea Lyons and Hillary Bowling.
Luckily for head coach Troy Mattson, the loss of his two most experienced players is simply that - a change - but certainly not an obstacle.
"We're still lacking a couple things, I understand that," he said. "We're going to play a lot of freshmen, a lot of sophomores and a couple of juniors, so we're very young. But like I said, the playing time has been there for most of them and I expect them to be able to carry that into the season."
Northern Michigan University sophomore Sarah Miller drives the baseline against Madonna in an exhibition on Oct. 28 at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Journal photo by Matt Wellens)
With seven sophomores, most of whom got substantial playing time last season, and only two juniors - Katie Becker and Annie Rubendunst - Mattson knows that he is dealing with a young crew this season. But where the Wildcats are at a loss for age, they unexpectedly make up for it in experience.
The Wildcats also added some height with a pair of freshmen in 6-foot-2 Nea Makela of Finland and 6-foot Alyson Matkovich, plus 6-foot-2 sophomore transfer Maria Almquist out of Minnesota-Duluth and Hancock Central High School.
"We've gotten bigger," Mattson said. "I think Brooke Coenen has really come out strong here in the last few months and Nea Makela is going to be a very special player in this league. We're very big for a basketball team at our level."
In fact, nine of NMU's 16 players are at least six-feet tall this season, including Coenen, a 6-foot-2 sophomore, who has already excelled as a forward by notching nine rebounds in both exhibition games. Then there's 6-3 Courtney Lemon, who led the Wildcats last season with 18 blocked shots, while also grabbing 112 rebounds, good for second on the team behind Lyons and tied with Bowling.
With a couple big dents in the offensive starting lineup from last season, Mattson said he is looking for ways to fill the big holes left by his graduated senior guards.
"I think that Alyssa Colla is going to have to take on a big burden with the shots at the end of the game," he said. "I'm expecting other people to also fall into those places, such as Lauren Gruber, Courtney Lemon and the people who have played major minutes that are going to be expected to make big plays at the end of games like Chelsea and Hillary did."
Colla, a sophomore, had a strong offensive presence for Northern last year as a freshman, and will follow suit this season as one of the team's most experienced guards.
"The difference this year is that everyone that's on the floor can score," Colla said of the team's depth. "It's just picking our spots mostly, but we have a lot of options this year."
Mattson also acknowledged that even for a group as young as his, their height and experience, as well as depth, will lead to some success this season.
"I really feel like we're ahead of the ballgame here defensively," he said. "We still have some things to work on, and we're still trying to find our niche on offense as far as who can do what and getting a good feel for everybody."
In its two exhibition games this season, Northern defeated Madonna, 58-53, and Wisconsin-Superior, 56-43, fueled by two strong performances from Colla.
Against Madonna, Colla scored a team-high 16 points and added another 14 against UW-Superior.
Perhaps more crucial were the performances from the fresh faces on the team, those who were playing their first games on the college stage and still getting accustomed to college basketball's pace, chemistry and style.
"I didn't really have that hard of a time adjusting, but it is a lot quicker in college," said freshman Anna Liewen. "I feel like I fit in well with the team and I know that if I work hard I'll get on the court."
As one of the new faces on the court, Liewen, who scored 14 points against Madonna, was second on NMU in scoring only to Colla.
"In our first two exhibition games, it was more of a let's-just-see-how-it-goes sort of thing," Liewen said. "(And, as freshmen) we know that we have to work extra hard because everyone is coming back next year, so we have to establish ourselves on the team."
Another freshman who is expected to make waves this season is Makela, who moved to Marquette after being recommended to Mattson by a coach in Makela's home country of Finland.
"I was over there a few years ago and a gentleman that I know over there runs their top program and he mentioned that there was a young lady that he thought could play at our level," Mattson said of recruiting Makela. "He wanted me to find a place for her and after I watched her on film, I said this is far enough. She's going to be a special player."
Makela, of Tampere, averaged 18.9 points as the MVP of the U19 league in the Finnish Basketball Association, while also averaging 11.6 rebounds.
Now with their only two exhibition games under their belt, the Wildcats will move on to play a handful of non-conference teams before starting GLIAC play in early December.
Northern starts its regular season at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Berry Events Center against Davenport, an NAIA school in Grand Rapids.