Youthful ‘Cats

MARQUETTE – Over the last several years, the Northern Michigan University women’s basketball team has had quite a bit of success, especially when it drew an NCAA tournament bid two years ago.

Last season, the Wildcats returned some of the players from that NCAA tourney team and hoped to get back into the tournament.

But Northern was hit hard by injuries and was unable to achieve its full potential, ending its season in the first round of the GLIAC Tournament.

Even though the team didn’t have a long playoff run, NMU head coach Troy Mattson was happy with how his team fought hard to overcome its trials throughout the season.

“We obviously had a very experienced team returning last year,” he said. “One with very lofty goals and high expectations. For the most part, I’m pleased with what happened. We were decimated by injuries coming down the stretch and we just didn’t have the firepower or the people to get us over the hump against the really good teams.

“That really affected the outcome of our season, but for the most part, the girls put their hearts and souls into it and I respect that. There’s no disappointment with what happened. Injuries play a part in athletics at every level and that was just a big part of ours.”

This year’s squad is young, so rebuilding may be in order for the Wildcats. However, Mattson says his freshmen-laden team has made a lot of progress in a short amount of time.

“Eight of my 13 girls are freshmen, seven of which are going to play a big part for us,” he said. “We have three red-shirted freshmen, who obviously have a year of experience. Two of them will start, (guards) Darby Youngstrom and Chloe Tompkins. They both have played really well.

“(Guard) Tess Weatherly has been injured, but played great against Wisconsin-Superior (in an exhibition game). We have three or four freshmen who will also see significant minutes.

“I guess the biggest name would be Taylor Hodell, the 6-foot-5 center we have from Wausau, Wisconsin. She will see major minutes. She’s a major player and will be one in this league.

“We also have two big-time shooters in Emily Schramek and Haley Kershner and believe that (Houghton’s) Sydney Dillinger is going to spot some minutes.

“We have been playing extremely well for our age. We had a bad quarter (against Wisconsin-Superior), a really bad quarter. It showed that we need to improve on the little things that didn’t get done in that quarter.

“But if we improve on them and continue to show the firepower that we have, we’ll be a very dangerous team and one that is learning all of the time.”

Last season, the Wildcats had two talented guards in Alyssa Colla and Lauren Gruber. Both have moved on, and with the team being so young, Northern will rely on junior Bre Gaspervich to lead the backcourt.

However, Mattson says Gaspervich will have a capable supporting cast.

“I’m really surprised and I’m very happy with where we are at with our guards,” he said. “It’s time for Bre to step up and be the player that she is and get more involved in everything that we’re doing. She’s an outstanding basketball player.

“We also have a multitude of good, young freshman guards. Chloe had a huge game against Wisconsin-Superior and when you’re 6-foot and a point guard that can play like her, things are going to be just fine here.

“We’ve got a lot of athletic guards that are just learning. That’s the big thing. They haven’t been through the wars like Alyssa and Lauren, but they are going to be soon.

“I feel better about where we are at with our guard play and hopefully, we can continue to improve every day.”

Although guards run the court, it’s important to have height inside to crash the boards and get easier baskets. Mattson likes what he sees so far in that area and doesn’t see his squad as one-dimensional.

“We are very long and athletic,” he said. “Our athleticism is as good as it’s been here. Our length is as good as it’s been here in a lot of positions.

“Our biggest thing is just understanding situations in games that we have not been in yet. The only way to do that is to get in them and learn from them.

“We’re going to do everything. We have an inside game and we have an outside game. We have a lot of speed in the open court, but we are still learning how to play defense properly to be a successful team.

“We’re still learning how to rebound properly to be a successful team. It’s going to be a process for us and we understand that.”

In the GLIAC, Mattson sees Upper Peninsula rival Michigan Tech, Grand Valley State and Ashland at the top, with everyone else fighting for the final home spot in the GLIAC Tournament.

“I think there are three teams a little head and shoulders above everybody else,” he said about the three favorites. “They return a lot of major players this year and they were the top three teams last year.

“To be able to get into the mix is going to take some work, but it’s a challenge for all of us. We need to narrow that gap because they are going to have juniors and seniors with a lot of playing time compared to a lot of people who are rebuilding or are trying to get themselves into that mix.”

The preseason GLIAC poll picked the Wildcats to finish fourth in the North Division behind Tech, GVSU and Northwood.

Mattson doesn’t focus on the polls, though. He says his squad could be a sleeper in the league.

“We are going to be exciting to watch and we have a lot of potential,” he said. “It’s just potential that hasn’t seen the court yet.

“We are going to surprise a lot of people by how good we are. Can we win the close games? That will be our challenge.”

Ryan Stieg can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 246. His email address is rstieg@miningjournal.net.