NMU men, women open up year with Challenge

Northern Michigan University’s Darby Youngstrom, front, prepares for a layup shot against Wayne State University Saturday afternoon, Feb. 11, 2017, at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Journal photo by Rachel Oakley)

MARQUETTE — The Northern Michigan University women’s and men’s basketball teams have finished their exhibition schedules, so now the real work begins.

Both Wildcats’ squads will open their respective seasons this weekend with the GLIAC/Great Lakes Valley Conference Challenge.

But the locations are far different, with the women heading south to Indianapolis on Friday and Romeoville, Illinois, on Sunday, while the men make a much shorter drive to Houghton for their version of the tournament.

In addition to the Challenge, the NMU women play all of their nonconference games on the road, which head coach Troy Mattson says isn’t ideal, but that games like the Challenge will help his squad as the season goes on.

“It gets us prepared for the GLIAC, obviously,” he said. “The really important thing is that every nonconference game is a regional game.

“So at the end of the year, the regional committee looks and if we have a win against the University of Indianapolis and a win against Lewis, who has been the premier team in (the Great Lakes Valley Conference), that bodes well for us. It gets you a lot of regional points also.

“Even when we go against the Minnesota schools, they’re all regional games for us. It’s an important stretch for us before we start conference play and every game means something.

“That’s the way we’re going to prepare ourselves and make sure we take every game ready to go and we’ll see what we can do with this nonconference schedule.

“My biggest concern is that all eight of them are on the road. We don’t have any at home this year. That’s a concern to try to win as many games as we can and have a regional ranked team when it comes.”

Meanwhile, Northern men’s head coach Bill Sall likes the fact that his team gets to play so close to home, especially since the Wildcats have had some success offensively on Michigan Tech’s court in Houghton.

“It is nice to be a little closer on a road trip,” he said. “I think that’s the closest you can get. It’s nice for us because it’s a gym that we have played in plenty and we’ve actually shot the ball really well there. I look forward again to see what our guys are made of here this weekend.”

Mattson may not like the multiple road games at the start of the season, but he seemed to be in good spirits even though his squad has already been bitten by the injury bug.

“I’m feeling good,” he said. “I feel our team is looking pretty good right now. (Forward) Erin Honkala has been cleared to play. She’s not completely healthy, but she has been cleared to play.

“I said I wasn’t going to talk about injuries, but (center) Taylor Hodell has now come down with mono(nucleosis) on top of everything she’s done. So she’s out for quite a while, we believe.

“Our team is practicing well and trying to stay out of the injury situation. I think we’re going to be prepared for Friday against a really good Indianapolis team.”

Mattson is happy to get a post player back into the lineup, especially since his backcourt will be led by two freshmen, one of them former Marquette Senior High School star Amber Huebner.

“Getting one person back was important to us, especially an inside player when you have two of them down,” he said. “We’re about as good as we’re going to be. I guess where there is a concern, it will be playing two freshmen point guards 40 minutes. That’s going to be interesting this first weekend.

“They’re doing great, honestly. They’re really playing well and they’re doing what we ask of them. Liz Lutz will start for us at the point and Amber will back her up. We’ll try to get 20 minutes out of each of them, and if they continue to practice, or play the way they practice, I think they’re going to solidify that position and make us feel a lot more confident than where we probably were coming in.”

When asked if his young guards were eager to start so early in their careers, Mattson said that they were and that they both bring different things to the game.

“They want to be (playing),” he said. “We wanted Sydney (Dillinger) to be the person, but Sydney doesn’t want to be a point guard. She wants to play the wing and that was a big burden on her.

“She didn’t want to do it and she was going to have to if we didn’t see the progress of Liz and Amber. Both of them are gamers and they add a little bit (of) difference between them.

“Liz is a great outside shooter and has great basketball instincts, and Amber adds that toughness on the defensive end with rebounding and all of the special qualities that made her a winner throughout her (high school) career.”

On the men’s team, Sall says the Wildcats have continued to get better in its three exhibition contests.

“I like where our team is at,” he said. “We’ll see what this weekend brings. Now the games are for real. I’ve seen improvement in the preseason games. Certainly, (the scrimmage against) Alma (on Saturday) was the best 20 minutes of basketball that we’ve played so far. Yes, some good optimism going in.”

Sall is feeling positive overall with his squad, but he still would like to see some things fixed and wants to see how his players perform playing a lot of minutes.

“I still don’t feel like we’re playing at the pace I’d like to see us go at,” he said. “Preseason games so far, we haven’t really played our guys for extended periods of time.

“The Alma game, where I said we were going to do that, we got a sizable lead and I ended up letting the bench finish it out. This will be that true test of staying conditioned and play at the level we want to play at for extended periods of time.”

When asked about the early-season tournament, Sall likes the idea because it’s good preparation for a potential postseason bid.

“I like to have a little tournament flavor,” he said. “It is hard to sometimes go the back-to-back (games) Friday-Saturday or Saturday-Sunday.

“In the same breath, when you get to tournament play, whether it be GLIAC or NCAA, that’s what you’re doing. You’re playing back-to-backs. I think you get a really good feel for your team and there’s not many adjustments from a Friday to a Saturday.

“It’s nice sometimes when you lose to get right back on the court and correct and do better than what you did last time.”

Like the women’s team, the NMU men will also spend a lot of time on the road to start the season as neither will have a home game until Nov. 30. That’s not an easy thing to deal with, but Sall looks at it in a positive light.

“We get to figure out what it means to be on a bus with a bunch of guys for awhile,” he said. “I don’t mind that, though.”

The Northern women play at Indianapolis Friday and at Lewis Sunday, while the men play Lewis Saturday and Wisconsin-Parkside Sunday in Houghton.

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.