MARQUETTE - Youth was not only served, but it served the Northern Michigan University women's basketball team well a year ago.
A freshman- and sophomore-laden lineup just missed the .500 mark last season, going 13-14 overall and 10-12 in the GLIAC, but was still good enough to qualify for the conference postseason tournament for the fourth time in five years.
All those young players are now a year older, and more importantly, have another year of experience playing college basketball that could translate into success for the Wildcats for several seasons running.
Northern Michigan University’s Alyssa Colla drives inside against Saginaw Valley State on Jan. 17 at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. Colla was a second-team All-GLIAC selection for the 2012-13 season and a preseason All-GLIAC first-team selection in 2013-14 after averaging a team-high 13.1 points per game last season. (Journal file photo)
Head coach Troy Mattson will just worry about this year right now, however.
"Last year was one of my most rewarding years as a coach," said Mattson, who is in his ninth year as women's basketball coach. "We basically played with all underclassmen - we started three sophomores and two freshmen - because our two juniors played minimally.
"Then we beat two of the four teams from our conference that made it to the national tournament, and almost beat a third, too."
GLIAC Preseason Polls
1. Mich. Tech (16) 177 21-9
2. Wayne State (8) 167 22-9
3. Grand Valley 143 19-8
4. Ferris St. 124 13-13
5. Saginaw Valley 85 13-14
6. Northern Mich. 70 13-14
7. Northwood 64 12-16
8. Lake Superior 34 5-21
1. Ashland (13) 178 37-1
2. Findlay (10) 177 24-6
3. Hillsdale 122 11-14
4. Malone 117 14-12
5. Tiffin (1) 103 11-15x
6. Ohio Dominican 85 11-15
7. Walsh 56 8-18
8. Lake Erie 26 4-23
Those games, all played at home at the Berry Events Center, were wins over Michigan Tech, 69-60, and Findlay, 59-49, and a near-miss against division champion Wayne State, a 63-59 loss.
However, Mattson does caution those who expect everything to come up roses.
"The hardest thing for us is that the North Division is just brutal. That's our dilemma," Mattson said about the half of the GLIAC that Northern plays in. "You've got two teams that have the potential to play for the national championship - Wayne State and Ferris State - and the six other North teams (that) are real, real good."
Mattson said his lineup is deep.
"Everything is in place to have a good year. Injuries always play a big part, but we expect big things," he said. "We have 11 or 12 people I can trust on the court."
The Wildcats are deep at guard, led by team MVP and 2012 All-GLIAC second teamer Alyssa Colla, who at 5-foot-11 led Northern in points (12.9 ppg), assists (2.9) and minutes played. Fellow junior Lauren Gruber, who's 5-8, was named to the conference all-defensive team and led NMU in free throw shooting (85.7 percent) and was second in points (11.6 ppg) and minutes played.
The depth comes from incoming 5-5 freshman Bre Gaspervich, who was ranked as the No. 1 point guard in Wisconsin last season for smaller schools.
"She's very talented at the offensive end, and she knows how to make the play," Mattson said.
Junior Sarah Miller, at 5-8, will "also see major minutes," according to the coach, who adds that a three-guard lineup won't be uncommon this season.
At 5-10, sophomore Anna Liewen can play guard and forward and "had major games for us" last year, according to Mattson. She will be joined at forward by 6-foot junior Abbey DeBruin, who played well once she recovered from injury.
Included in this group are 6-foot sophomore Alyson Matkovich and 6-1 senior Annie Rubendunst.
"We have some very, very solid offensive rebounders who can make the plays," Mattson said.
Then at center is what Mattson hopes opponents will lament as the Wildcats' three-headed monster - 6-2 sophomore Nea Makela, 6-3 junior Courtney Lemon and 6-2 junior Brooke Coenen.
"Nea was very, very good as a freshman last year," Mattson said, "and Lemon and Coenen will get major minutes."
Maturity could push the Wildcats into an elite position this year.
"Every game we played (last year) was close it seemed, but we had a hard time winning the close games consistently," Mattson said. "We were about .500 in them. But that's part of the maturation process."