Beset by injuries

NMU’s Taylor Hodell takes a shot with MTU’s Michelle LaFave, center, and teammate Lindsay Winter on defense Sunday afternoon, December 17, 2017 at the Berry Events Center. (Journal photo by Corey Kelly)

MARQUETTE — Looking back at the past season, the Northern Michigan University women’s basketball team had to battle mounting injuries.

Injury-plagued would describe it well as Chloe Tompkins had to sit out the entire year and Darby Youngstrom only played eight games before leaving with her own injury.

Over the course of the season, several players went down with health issues, but the Wildcats powered their way through, winning five of their last six games to again make the GLIAC Tournament.

“‘Adversity’ is the word I’m looking for,” Northern head coach Troy Mattson said in a press conference last week. “You guys have no idea to the extent of actually what was going on outside of the people who were sitting out.

“The injuries that we had to the people on the court was tremendous. I’ve had two girls have surgery after the season that played through injuries.

“There was a lot of things going on. We won five of our last six games. So I was very proud of that being very under-personed. We were able to hang in there and find a way to win five in a row and actually gave Grand Valley (State) a decent (tournament) game down there and had a chance.

“It was probably the hardest year on me because I’ve coached for a long time and we had such high expectations and we weren’t able to fulfill them. It wasn’t due to the players and it wasn’t due to our coaching staff. It was just some unforeseen things that you can’t control and there was nothing we could do about it.

“I was proud of the way the girls that were out on the court played through a lot of pain and injuries.”

Mattson also praised his younger players, who did their best to contribute despite playing in obvious pain as the year went on.

“They showed a lot of toughness,” he said. “Liz (Lutz) is still out and not allowed to practice with us for the next two to three weeks.

“She was trying so hard to play in the last (regular-season) game against Wayne State. She was trying so hard to play against Grand Valley. I put here in after the game was probably over because we needed her to make a couple of shots and she actually went out and played about five minutes. They won’t let her near the gym now.

“Erin (Honkala) is one of the toughest players I’ve ever coached and Jessica (Schultz) showed me a lot…. She hung in there and played well throughout the course of the season and had surgery last week on her knee.

“So they showed me a lot. It’s young players, too. These are freshmen and sophomores that are trying to tough it out. We made it through it and we’re all going to survive here.

“So hopefully we can get ourselves healthy and get ourselves ready to go for next year.”

With Tompkins and Youngstrom out of commission, Lexi Smith became the go-to player for the Wildcats. The freshman led NMU in scoring with 12.6 points per game and reached double-figures 19 times. For those efforts, Smith was named GLIAC Freshman of the Year.

Honkala was a bench player at the start of the season but was moved into the lineup and ended up being the Wildcats’ leader in rebounds, blocks and steals.

Taylor Hodell also developed into a force in the paint and scored in double figures in eight of the first 10 games back from injury.

Former Marquette Redettes Terese Ledy and Amber Huebner also found themselves getting playing time far sooner than expected, but both contributed when on the floor.

“Amber has some work to do,” Mattson said. “You have to score the basketball at this level and she’s going to struggle right now.

“I thought Terese got her feet wet. She gave us some good minutes in the middle of the season. I think she got a little itch to get better. She’s got to get tougher and stronger, and if she does that, she’ll get an opportunity to help us out a little bit next year.”

Other than health problems, Mattson felt the biggest problem his team had was an inability to make shots, though it wasn’t due to poor shot selection.

“It’s just making shots,” he said. “We don’t really take bad shots, to be honest, and we don’t have anybody that can create bad shots. We need to shoot open shots and when we did, we didn’t shoot a good enough percentage.

“The nights we shot well, we won. We go down to Saginaw and we make 10 or 12 3s and we win. We play our last game against Wayne State who was in the national rankings. Tess (Weatherly) makes five 3s. If that was a consistent all season long, we’d win a lot more games because I think the rest of our game is pretty solid.”

In fact, Mattson has so much confidence in his team that he’s raising his expectations further this coming season. He has good reason to do so as the Wildcats return all 16 players from this year’s roster.

“They’re higher than this year when I walked in,” he said. “We’ve got everyone returning. We expect Darby to be at full strength and we’ll put her at one wing and Lexi on the other. We’ve got a good scoring tandem there, two girls that can potentially get you 20 every night, which we lacked this year.

“We have the potential to have Chloe coming back and playing. She’s on schedule right now and actually running for the first time in over a year. So that’d be a big boost for us. Because behind Darby, I think Chloe is our best player. We’ve got to get these other players healthy, like Erin and Jessica and Lexi and Liz.

“I could just do down the list. Taylor is very sick still. We’ve had a commitment this week that I think will be a major player for us.

“I’m excited about next year, but we have a long way to go to get healthy first. We’re still way out.”

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