Last season, the Winona State Warriors had an impressive season. Despite being picked to finish 12th in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, they found themselves in a fourth place finish. The Warriors reeled off 20 wins, finishing at 20-8 with an impressive 15-7 conference record. Still, with a loss in second round of the NSIC playoffs, it left them on the outside looking in of the NCAA Championships for the fourth straight season.

“We were a very young team last year,” Winona State coach Scott Ballard said. “We surprised a lot of people and exceeded many expectations. We knew that with the core of our team returning, if everyone had a good offseason and really worked at it, we had a chance at doing some special things.”

Thus far, it has been special for the Warriors. They currently sit at 13-0, with an impressive 6-0 record to start their NSIC play. This season, however, it is not as much of a surprise as it was last year. Winona State came into this season projected to finish first in the NSIC in the preseason coaches poll. But that hasn’t really effected Ballard or his Warriors.

“We figured we would probably be picked in the top three,” Ballard said. “Polls don’t mean everything, the games aren’t played on paper. We know that you still have to go out and prove that you can play well on a consistent basis on both ends of the floor.”

That consistency has been the key to their impressive run. WSU blends a balanced attack of the NSIC’s best scoring offense (80.2 points a game) and No. 1 scoring defense (51.8 points a game) for a conference best 28.4 scoring differential.

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Ballard is doing it behind a team philosophy that is based on sound rebounding and defense. It is a philosophy that requires his players to check their egos at the door. His Warriors’ team bought into a team-first philosophy that currently has them clicking on all cylinders. They have done it as a cohesive unit that truly believes that the next person off the bench can be the hot hand. 

“We have not had a Player of the Week yet and we probably won’t,” Ballard said.  “That’s because we have so much balance. We aren’t worried about numbers or stats, we just want to take care of business and try to win on a nightly basis and get ready for the next one.

“They’re a fun team. They're fun to watch and they're fun to coach because of their style of play. We share the ball really well. There are a lot of good players out there at the same time, but there is only one basketball. We are willing to make the extra pass and share the ball to get a higher percentage shot. There’s no egos. They all take turns having breakout performances, if someone’s hot we feed them the ball, and if somebody has a mismatch we try to exploit that.”

The Warriors had the luxury of returning seven of their top scorers from last season. That advantage provides them with a deep bench that keeps everyone fresh and active. With several games being lopsided in scores, many of their younger players are getting significant minutes early on, which will only help later down the road in the grueling NSIC season.

“We have a lot more depth than we had a year ago,” Ballard said. “It’s helped us tremendously in practice everyday, it’s helped us with fouls issues. We have a lot of balance, a lot depth and great team chemistry. We’re not worried about expectations, we just want to get ready for the next week’s games and getting better from one week to the next.”

Junior Tara Roelofs (16.3) — a two sport athlete who competes for the track and field team in the spring — and senior guard Alexis Foley (13.1) lead the way offensively as the top two scorers on the team. But they are just two cogs in the fine tuned machine their team is right now.

“Offensively, everybody has off nights, or may even go into a slump,” Ballard said. “But you should never have an off night when it comes to defense and rebounding. That’s focus, effort and competitiveness. There’s no finesse involved. We want to always be at our best in those two phases.” 

With such a deep bench and the luxury of having different types of players at his disposal, it makes the Warriors even more dangerous. They can come at you in so many different ways, it keeps opposing teams on their toes — and based on the early results — keeps them confused as well.

“We can play different styles of ball with this group,” Ballard said. “That’s what makes them hard to guard. We can play a high tempo game, we can play a grind it out, power game. We have inside, outside and players coming off the bench that could start for a lot of teams. The fact that we can keep our egos in check and stay humble and focused, and that everybody accepts their role and everybody does the best at that role that they can be -- that’s what makes it fun for us as coaches.”

Throughout it all, this is a team of student-athletes who excel in the classroom as well on the court. No one Warrior believes they are better than the next, and WSU is aware that if they don’t keep working hard, and grinding out that philosophy of rebounding, defense and — most importantly — team first, that their early season fortunes could change. That’s because through it all they have remained humble.

“There’s always something you can work on,” Ballard said. “So we focus more on getting better on the weaknesses that were exposed the previous weekend. It may be an old cliche, but you really can’t get too far ahead yourselves, you can’t take yourselves too serious. You have to stay humble.

“I love our group of people we have. It’s not because of how many points they score, or how many games that they’ve won. We have a lot of high character individuals that all put the team first. That’s challenging at times these days, but the most important thing to us the team is first.”

UPSET AT THE TOP

Southwest Baptist — a team on the turnaround under second-year coach Kelsey Keizer — took down the nation’s No. 1 team, the Fort Hays State Tigers, this past Saturday. The Bearcats fell behind 3-2 in the first minute of play, and would not trail for the rest of the game, as a solid team effort led to the impressive upset last Saturday, 82-71.

The 82 points that Fort Hays let up were the most they had surrendered all season. The Bearcats were led by a prolific offense that saw five players land in double figures. Freshman forward Caylee Richardson led the way with a double-double, registering 12 rebounds and 10 points, while starters Dilonnna Johnson (19 points), Mackenzie Skupa (17) and Alex Botkin (10) all contributed big nights with Megan Rosenbohm (15) helping off the bench.

With Drury dropping their first game of the season against Tampa in the Florida Tech Holiday Classic, that leaves No. 2 West Texas A&M as the only other still undefeated team (with Winona State) in the top ten from last week’s USA Today Coaches Poll. WT A&M roll into the holiday break after consecutive big victories in the Puerto Rico Tournament. They face Cameron in conference play New Year’s Eve to look to stay unbeaten.