Women's basketball to see playoffs

By Patrick Murphy

Five years ago, to say that the Macalester women’s basketball team was lousy would have been like saying Tiger Woods has a fidelity issue. The team was in such disarray that after losing its first six games by an average of over 39 points, the decision was made for the Scots to temporarily leave the MIAC, forfeiting the remainder of the season. After that season (if you can call six games a season) the head coach resigned, and the team was left in shambles. That offseason, Ellen Thompson, an assistant coach at the University of St. Thomas, was brought in to attempt resurrecting the program – the ultimate rebuilding process. With nothing to build off of, there was little reason to believe that the team would turn it around any time soon.

But miracles do happen. The Macalester women’s basketball team is having the best season in its history and clinched its first ever MIAC playoff berth with a victory over Concordia last Wednesday.

Before you try walking on water, know that the team didn’t transform overnight. The year that Thompson took over the reigns, the team went 7-18. 7-18 out of context might sound unremarkable, but after a season when the team lost two of its first four games by 54 and 57 points, anything is an improvement. Without a base to build on, the team relied heavily upon three freshmen. Center Ann Baltzer ’10, guard Danielle Johnson ’10 and power forward Trina PaStarr ’10 stepped up in a big way, leading the team in scoring as freshmen.

The next season the team continued to make strides. Ignoring any would-be sophomore slump, Baltzer, PaStarr and Johnson improved upon their impressive freshmen numbers, again leading the team in scoring. With fellow sophomore Eartha Bell ’10 joining the mix after transferring from Amherst, the team again improved in the win column, going 9-16 overall and 8-14 in the conference. With her ability to distribute the ball from the point guard position (72 assists), Bell was able to help Baltzer, PaStarr, and Johnson put up big numbers.

Last season brought a talented recruiting class that added depth to compliment the front line. Shooting guard Jess Rene ’12 and power forward Holly Schiedermayer ’12 made an impact upon arrival. Rene led the team in three-point shooting, while Schiedermayer was able to give PaStarr and Baltzer a break by helping to create havoc in the low post. Majra Mucic ’11 also played an integral part on the team, averaging the third most points on the team, coming off the bench. With the continued strong play of the established team leaders and the emergence of some of the younger players, the team went 11-14 on the season and 9-13 in conference. Despite a successful season, the team was left feeling unfulfilled after just missing out on the playoffs.

Coming into this season, the team was dead set on erasing the memories of past struggles with a breakthrough season.

“Our goal coming into the season was making the playoffs,” said Thompson bluntly. Facing stiff conference competition, the team needed to be on top of its game to have a chance at the playoffs.

The season got off on the wrong foot as the Scots dropped their first three games by a miniscule 10 combined points. In the past, the team had a mentality of considering well-played, close losses as small victories, but in the last four years the mentality has gradually changed.

“It was difficult to change our mentality at first,” admitted Baltzer, “but once we realized that we were capable of winning big games, the mindset completely changed.”

Added PaStarr, “This year has been completely different. We go into games knowing that we can win.”

After the slow start, the team was, “en fuego,” as Dan Patrick would say, winning 11 of their next 13 games.

Despite some ups and downs the team has maintained its impressive level of play throughout the season. With one game left to play, the team is in the playoffs with its record standing at 15-9 overall and 15-6 in conference play. “Making it to the playoffs feels absolutely wonderful,” said PaStarr, “but the way we’ve played this year, I was confident we had what it took to get over the hump.”

Statistically, the team has wreaked havoc in the MIAC, finishing at the top in several categories, most notably first in rebound margin (outrebounding their opponents by 7.4 rebounds per game) and first in assists (15.96 per game).

Johnson, part of the original “Big 3,” attributed this success to the team’s increased confidence. “We all have a great respect for one another and trust each other when the game is on the line,” she said.

As seniors, Baltzer (16.4 points per game, 6.6 rebounds per game), PaStarr (13.3 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 27 blocks), Johnson (8.7 ppg, 77 assists), and Bell (83 assists, 48 steals) have continued to lead the team with impressive numbers all around. In her first year as a full-time starter, Jess Rene has emerged as a perimeter scoring threat for the Scots with the third best 3-point percentage in the MIAC (42.4%). Not to be outdone, Jess’ identical twin sister, Shannon has emerged as an all-around threat for the team, averaging 6.4 points per game to go along with a tidy 56 assists.

“I couldn’t ask for a better teammate.” Shannon said of playing on the college level with Jess. “We’ve played together since second grade, and I couldn’t see myself playing without her.”

“There’s definitely a unique connection that creates chemistry when we’re on the floor,” Shannon added. That’s not to mention that opposing defenders are left confused when they’re on the court together.

With a regular season game still left to be played, the playoff matchups are yet to be determined, but the team is focused on maintaining their level of play and taking the playoffs one game at a time.

“This season has been a culmination of the seniors’ efforts the last four years” Coach Thompson said.

“In past years we wouldn’t have had much of a chance in the playoffs,” Baltzer said “We struggled to win close games, but this year there is a level of maturity that has allowed us to handle the pressure and win games in a number of ways.”

“We need to play together like we know we can and hit our shots,” Johnson said, “It’s really that simple. Win or lose, we do it together.”

The team takes on St. Catherine at 3:00 Saturday afternoon at the Leonard Center, in what could be the final home game for the seniors. The playoff schedule will be determined once all regular season games are finished this weekend.