ok the reins of the women’s basketball team in the 2005-06 season, it’s no secret that he was given the task of rebuilding a program.
“Ground zero,” Mattson said. “It was ground zero.”
Since then, Mattson has accumulated a 24-54 overall record with the team. Despite finishing last in the GLIAC North last season, the Wildcats were in games until the very end, losing seven contests by four points or less.
“This year, we’re as good as anybody in the league,” Mattson said. “We were as good as anybody in the league last year. We were just unfortunate that we couldn’t win a close game.”
This season, the program, and the 2008-09 Wildcats will be taking another step in the right direction.
“Right now, we’re as good as anybody, but we’re not better than anybody,” Mattson said. “That’s where our program is.
“We’re going to be in 20 close games,” he added. “And the question is, ‘Are we going to make the plays at the end to win it?'”
Lost to graduation from last season is All-GLIAC second team center Allison Carroll, and gone with her is 15 points per game from the NMU interior offense. Not only did Carroll lead in the scoring category, but she also led the team in offensive and defensive rebounding and blocked shots. Carroll blocked as many shots as the next three NMU players combined in that statistical category.
Mattson said the defense and rebounding is something the team can make up, but it’s the inside scoring that will be a concern this season.
“That’s an issue,” he said. “Where are we going to get points on the interior of our offense?”
He said the Wildcats will look to junior centers Angie Leckson and Jaclyn Davey to fill that void, as well as senior forwards Cassie Hegbloom and Cassi Rushford.
With four proven upperclassmen on the inside, as well as senior Kelsey Deacon at the point guard spot, one asset the team does have this season is experience, something Deacon said will result in victories.
“Me, (junior guard) Natalie (Larocque), Rushford, Hegbloom, Angie (Leckson) have all been here three, four years now,” she said. “We’ve been in every experience possible. Experience is going to be something that gets us to win those close games.”
And, as for those close games that they lost last season, Hegbloom said they’re forgotten.
“Last year is in the past, that’s just how we look at it,” Hegbloom said. “We look toward the future, and we have great expectations for this season.”
According to Mattson, the leadership this season will be up to Hegbloom and Deacon, the latter of which having been deemed a leader for much of her Northern career.
“I think we’ve got a couple of real nice leaders right now,” Mattson said. “Kelsey Deacon’s doing a great job, Cassie Hegbloom’s doing a nice job of being a leader.”
Deacon said this season, moreso than before, she needed to become the true leader of the Wildcat team.
“I’ve been in this position for a while, but I feel like this year I need to step up even more, just because we lost Allison (Carroll), who was huge last year, and she was just a leader on the court because of what she could do,” she said. “Being my senior year, and how far all of us have come, we all wanted to step up, and I felt like it needed to start with a leader. It just needed to get done.”
While this season will be the last for the seniors, Deacon, Hegbloom and Rushford, the future of the program lies with the underclassmen, like sophomore guards Steffani Stoeger and Kellie Rietveld, players Mattson describes as “warriors.”
“Steffani Stoeger and Kellie Rietveld just don’t want to lose, and they’re not freshmen anymore, they’re sophomores and they’ll do anything and everything to win a basketball game, and that’s going to be a big part of our leadership,” he said.
And they’re not simply leaders this season, but for the future, as well.
“A big part of our recruiting process when we started at ground zero, when we started going in the right direction, was to get people who were complete warriors,” Mattson said. “Fortunately, we ran into Kellie and Steff along the way.
“That’s how you turn your program around,” he added. “To learn how to win games, you’ve got to have people who will not accept losing.”
Along with Steoger, Rietveld, Deacon and Larocque, on the perimeter will be a pair of deft shooters, in senior Holly Cole and junior Christa Erickson.
“Those two girls can flat out shoot as good as anybody in our league,” Mattson said. “Having those two out there are serious, serious weapons.”
There will be a variety of Wildcats seeing playing time this season at the guard position, and Mattson said the depth of the team is unlike a lot of teams in the GLIAC.
“Our guards are probably the strength of our team. That (perimeter scoring) can come from a lot of people. One thing we have is great depth,” he said. “We played 12 girls (against UM-D). There aren’t many teams playing 12 girls more than 10 minutes a game.”
In the first game of the season, the Wildcats defeated the University of Minnesota-Duluth 63-60, behind strong perimeter scoring, the majority of which came from Deacon, who had 28 points.
When asked about her impressive performance in the game, Deacon stresses the word “we.”
“We just came together. We ran motion, and we got each other open and it led to open looks,” she said. “We just went out there and played basketball.”
According to Hegbloom, who had the go-ahead basket and the last two rebounds against UM-D, the Wildcats picking up a close win in the first game was looked at as a jumping-off point for the season.
“I think our first game proves that we can take the next step,” she said. “We were in the close game for our first one, and instead of being underneath this time, we came out with the win on top. And I think that’s how every single game is going to be this year.”
Mattson added that it was nice to be in that situation and come out victorious.
“It was a scenario we’ve been acquainted with,” he said. “This year, Kelsey made a huge play, and Cassie Hegbloom made an unbelievable shot, and it got us the win.”
Freshman guard Brynn Larsen, who scored nine points, was another standout of the UM-D game, in Mattson’s eyes.
“For a freshman point guard, she had an outstanding game,” he said. “Especially in the second half.”
Deacon added that after the game, the team took a moment to take it all in.
“After the game, we sat there, and it was one of those feelings of such relief, because we hadn’t done that before,” she said. “We’d been in close games and overtime where we had been the team that came out losing, so to come out in our first game of the season, have a close game, and win, it was just like the pace of how the season will go.”
The Wildcats next game is against Marygrove at 11 a.m. on Saturday, followed by a game against Finlandia, Monday at 5:30 p.m. Both games are at the Berry Events Center.