DII women’s notebook: Reigning champs back in form; Bridgeport readies for semifinal
Vulcans get back on track
The California (Pa.) Vulcans entered the 2015-2016 basketball season as defending national champions. Ranked No. 5 in the USA Today Coaches preseason poll, they knew they were going to have their hands full right out of the gate.
“You’re going to get every team’s best game,” coach Jess Strom said. “Coming into the season we had to talk about that with the players. At the same time this is a very different team than last year’s. For us, it’s about getting better every day and trying to ignore the fact that every team wants to beat us because we won the national championship last year.”
The biggest challenge for the Vulcans will be a new-look starting team. Gone from last season’s championship squad are three of the top four scorers. The Vulcans went from an experienced, veteran squad to a very young team seemingly overnight.
They began regular season play at the West Liberty Conference Challenge. After an opening night nine-point victory over a very talented Notre Dame (OH) team, they lost 88-65 to No. 21 West Liberty in a rematch from last year’s regional playoffs.
“We got crushed,” Strom said. “We got beat bad. Our team felt embarrassed after that.
“West Liberty is a great team, and taking it so early it made us hungry again. It helped us realize that we we’re not where we needed to be. If we want to get back and compete, we’re going to have to be at least that good.
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“It was a slap in the face and a wake up call for us. The improvement from that game to a week later when we beat a very good Bloomsburg -- it's crazy how much we could improve in a week.”
Three nights later they would open PSAC play against Pitt-Johnstown. The young team would once again have their hands full, as the Mountain Cats took the reigning champs right down to the wire. Miki Glenn would hit the buzzer beater to send the Vulcans to victory in their PSAC opener 65-63.
“When you have inexperienced players, they have to learn how to win games,” Strom said. “It was huge for us [the buzzer beater] because it is hard to play at UPJ. We’ve gone there with really good teams and lost. It’s good to go on the road, get that experience and be in close games down the stretch and learn how to win games.”
The Vulcans are a team searching for a new identity, but since Glenn’s buzzer beater they look to have that old magic back. They are now 4-0 to start the PSAC season, most recently defeating Clarion Tuesday night. They have won their last three by 15 or more points. Miki Glenn — the top scorer returning from last year’s team — is leading the way.
“She had the ability the past two years to score more, but she didn’t have to,” Strom said. “She knew coming into the season that we lost 40 points a game from last year. Her and Seairra Barrett — we asked them to step up and score more, and I think both have done a really good job and stepped up to the challenge.”
Barrett was the PSAC West’s Freshman of the Year. Already a double-double machine this season, she seems to have matured tremendously this offseason.
“Last year she was very athletic, but still a little bit raw,” Strom explained. “She’s worked on her game a ton. This summer was huge for her. She really worked on her ball handling, getting a little bit of range outside and being more dynamic and being an athlete who can rebound and get put backs and score. She wants to be the big time player.”
The Vulcans look to stay undefeated in the PSAC this weekend with back-to-back games against Cheyney and Millersville. Although things are looking good to start the season, Strom knows that every day is a learning process.
“There are games as coaches we look forward to,” Strom said, “but for where we are at and how young we are we have to focus on the next game. Especially in the PSAC this year that is very wide open. You have to be prepared every single game.
“They want to get back there [national championship], but they learned you have to take it game by game. They understand the steps better now, but they know they want feel that way again.”
Bridgeport searching for first national title
While many people are looking forward to seeing if Grand Valley State can return to their third straight national championship final, the early afternoon game will be one for the ages.
The first soccer match of the semifinal pits the Bridgeport Purple Knights against the Columbus State Cougars. Both teams are set to square off in the first semifinal appearance in their program’s histories.
For Bridgeport coach Magnus Nilerud, it’s a long time coming. Nilerud took over in 1999 and has been no stranger to the NCAA playoffs, but now they have finally reached that elusive semi-finals match.
“We have been very successful and very fortunate here to make the NCAA tournament eight out of the last nine years,” Nilerud said. “It’s almost like we had gotten to a stalemate. You get knocked out in the second round every time except once — so to get over that hump gives a little more validity to our program.”
It has been an adventurous tournament thus far for the Purple Knights. The excitement started in the second round for Bridgeport when sophomore Ariana Weingrad’s goal with just 56 ticks left on the clock extended the No. 5 nationally ranked team’s season to yet another round. The quarterfinals saw freshman Jess Laszlo explode for two goals in the second half — Bridgeport’s only goals of the game — to lead them to the semi-finals. Another freshman —- goalkeeper Jennifer Wendelius — pitched her 12th shutout of the season in sealing the deal.
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“It was huge,” Nilerud said of finally winning that quarterfinal game. “The entire playoffs have been an emotional roller coaster — the teams we defeated and how we defeated them. We had a couple of injuries, we lost a player very valuable to the program but the kids rallied through that.”
“Experience is obviously very important,” Nilerud said of his sophomores and freshman stepping up to the challenge, “but sometimes the young kids, they are almost oblivious to everything else. They don’t know who the perennial power is in the conference or in the region, so they just go out and play. Sometimes that works in your favor.”
Now the stage is set for an exciting match. The winner will advance to their first national championship finals. That is something pretty special.
“I knew from day one from the work ethic that they had they were something special,” Nilerud said. “You never really know that until you start catching some breaks and sneak in a goal here and there. That’s when you know you can ride that wave hopefully as long as you can.”