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Figure it out on the fly: Coronavirus restrictions leave Northern Michigan University women’s basketball team little time to prepare for this weekend’s opener

Northern Michigan University’s Amber Huebner sinks this jump shot while defended by Grand Valley State’s Jenn Deboer in the fourth quarter of their GLIAC game on Feb. 20 at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

“I have 4 extremely talented freshmen here and they just haven’t been able to get the coaching or the teaching that they needed to progress.” — Troy Mattson, head coach, NMU women’s basketball

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MARQUETTE — Just like with other basketball players across the country, the last few months have been difficult for the Northern Michigan University women’s team.

However, the Wildcats’ situation might be a little different than others in the fact that head coach Troy Mattson has barely seen his players since the school year started.

“I think my team was kind of unique in this situation because it has been difficult (for) everybody and we’re not making excuses for what has gone on either, except for I haven’t seen, until last week, last Monday, I did not see one of my players since Oct. 27,” he said in a Zoom interview Monday.

NMU head coach Troy Mattson gestures while calling out instructions to his players in a game against Grand Valley State on Feb. 20 at the Berry Events Center in Marquette. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

So the Wildcats face some challenges with a short span of preseason training as they open their GLIAC campaign this weekend on the road at Wisconsin-Parkside in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Game times are 8 p.m. EST Saturday and 4 p.m. EST Sunday.

The Northern men’s team has a parallel series against the Rangers in Marquette at 1 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday at the NMU practice gym.

Mattson is just getting reacquainted with his team.

“I didn’t see them. They were sent home,” he said. “They were sent home early because we had one false positive and there happened to be a lot of team members involved with that false positive and they sent them all home. And then the school shut down and they did not get back for practice till Dec. 28.

“So it’s kind of unique even more so for me than probably other people that said ‘Well, we practiced for two weeks and got shut down.’ I didn’t get a chance really to practice at all with a full team for over two months.

Northern Michigan University's Makaylee Kuhn saves an errant pass from sailing out of bounds in the first quarter in a game against Ferris State at the Berry Events Center in Marquette on Jan. 16, 2020. (Photo courtesy Daryl T. Jarvinen)

“So it’s been really difficult. And the other part is I have four extremely talented freshmen here and they just haven’t been able to get the coaching or the teaching that they needed to progress throughout that time to help us.

“But they’re gonna play and that’s kind of a scary fact just from the standpoint that they are physically and talent-wise ready for basketball, but they mentally are really, really behind.

“So that’s been the really two difficult things for us.”

As difficult as this has been, Mattson feels positive and likes the team he has.

“We’ve got great size and length,” the coach said. “We’ll start four girls over 6-foot. And I like this team.

“I’m not going to to sit here and lie to you. It hasn’t been a joy for me to go into practice the last couple years because of personalities and personnel.

“I enjoy going to practice. These girls want to learn, they want to be a good team, they are playing as hard as they can right now. Our biggest thing is just getting in basketball shape and condition so something major doesn’t happen to us.

“But this team has been a joy. The little bit that we did in September and what I’ve seen in the past week, there’s no attitudes. They know that there’s no real big-time go-to player like a Jessica (Schultz) or a Darby (Youngstrom). So everybody has a role and they’re all filling that role as of right now very well.”

Filling those roles quickly is a good thing as the Wildcats don’t have long to prepare for their first opponent, Wisconsin-Parkside, which defeated Northern in the GLIAC Tournament quarterfinals 80-67 last season. Returning guards Makaylee Kuhn and Elena Alaix each scored 13 points, including three 3-pointers apiece, as four NMU players scored in double figures in that game.

Mattson said not much has changed with the Rangers and they’ll still be a tough opponent to deal with at their home in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

“They’ll do what they’ve been doing. She’s a really good coach, Jen Conely is a very good coach,” Mattson said. “She comes out of the Green Bay system and they return everybody but one of their main players from last year.

“They brought some new recruits in, but they’re going to play similar to the way they’ve played. They’re tough, they’re scrappy.

“I think they got kind of shortchanged in the GLIAC (preseason) voting. I think they’re potentially the best team in the North (Division) and they proved it last year. I mean, they took second in the North, they were fighting with us and Ferris (State) to win the league. And with about two weeks to go, we kind of dropped out and they fought Ferris to win the North last year right down to the bitter end and they ended up one game behind them.

“And now, they’re gonna return everybody. So I think they’re the best team in the North and it’s gonna be a tough, daunting task down there, but hopefully, we can get ourselves prepared as best as possible, go in there and compete as hard as we can and see where it goes.”

During last year’s regular season, NMU and UWP split their games, Northern winning 60-55 at home and Parkside 58-55 at their gym. The Wildcats hold a hefty 22-5 edge in their all-time series, though it is an even 4-4 since 2000.

Fans can follow the action online. Check out @NMU_Wildcats on Twitter, while live statistics are available at https://nmuwildcats.com/sports/wbkb/2020-21/boxscores/20210109_ 52sp.xml for Saturday’s game and https://nmuwildcats.com/sports/wbkb/2020-21/boxscores/20210110_ okop.xml for Sunday’s.

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

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