Last season, the NMU women’s basketball team finished last in the GLIAC North, with a record of 4-14 in the conference and 9-17 overall.
This season, the Wildcats have gotten off to a fast start, going 4-0, defeating regional-foe University of Minnesota-Duluth on the road, as well as St. Norbert on Monday, a team that was then the No. 16-ranked team in Division III. Now, the Wildcats head out on a three-game conference road trip starting with Northwood University, only to have six conference games at home before school gets back in session.
Junior guard Natalie Larocque said there’s one major contributing factor to the fast start.
“We’re tired of losing, that’s the main drive for us, not to get that last spot again,” Larocque said. “We’re shooting for first this time.”
The St. Norbert game showed that drive. Against a good Division III team, NMU came back from down 14 points in the first half to win, 81-69. According to head coach Troy Mattson, he scheduled the game against St. Norbert before the season, knowing that it would be a test for the Wildcats right before the conference games on the road.
“I scheduled it right before the Northwood game for that reason,” Mattson said. “I knew we had a couple, in Marygrove and Finlandia, that were going to probably be blowouts for us, and we needed to make sure we were going to be tough enough for the Northwood game.”
Mattson said the 4-0 start has had a lot to do with scheduling. This year, the home schedule features three Division III opponents, and for the first time in Mattson’s tenure, the team will have 15 games at the Berry Events Center.
“The thing that goes along with playing on the road and playing Division II schools all the time (early in the season), is you get beat up,” Mattson said. “Physically, mentally, you get beat up.”
This season, Mattson hopes it’ll be NMU that’s beating up on the Division II competition, with a team full of players he views as competitive and tough.
“I think our girls are getting that mentality, throughout the whole team, that we have to fight together, and they’re all doing that right now,” he said. “I think we’ve got a pretty tough team right now, but we’re going to face some pretty tough opponents that are going to match us, so it’s going to be a dog fight for us.”
Mattson cited senior forward Cassie Hegbloom (9.5 points per game), along with sophomore guards Kellie Rietveld (9.3) and Steffani Stoeger (8.5), as prime examples of that mentality. They are the second, third and fourth leading scorers, respectively.
Another strong player Mattson noted was senior guard Kelsey Deacon, who leads the team in scoring with 16.5 points per game. And first on the road swing for the ‘Cats is a trip to Midland, Mich., a place that Deacon is unhappily familiar with.
Deacon said she’s been to Northwood’s home court three times during her career, and has lost twice in overtime.
“Going to that place, and having the W and then losing in overtime just sucks,” she said. “So knowing how much experience we have on that court, we have to come out with a win.”
Perhaps thanks are in order for scheduling, because as the team prepares for the first long road trip of the year, there’s a different feeling from last year, when the team started off 1-3.
“Our confidence is up there right now. And I feel like everyone feels like we can beat anyone in our conference, and go in there and do the job,” Stoeger said. “As far as we go, it’s just what we want to do, and our fate is in our hands.”