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Season preview: 2018-19 Concordia women's basketball

By Jacob Knabel on Oct. 18, 2018 in Women's Basketball

2017-18 Record: 36-2 overall, 19-1 GPAC; GPAC regular season and tournament champs; national runner up
Head Coach: Drew Olson (318-93, 12 years; 10 national tournament appearances; 8 GPAC regular season/tournament titles; 4 national semifinal advancements, including two runners up)
Returning Starters:  G MacKenzie Helman (Jr.); F Philly Lammers (Jr.); F Quinn Wragge (Sr.).
Other Key Returners: G Taylor Cockerill (So.); F Colby Duvel (Jr.).
Key Newcomers: F Elsie Aslesen (Fr.); G Grace Barry (Jr.).
Key Losses: G Brenleigh Daum; G Sydney Feller; G Dani Hoppes; G Mary Janovich.
2017-18 GPAC All-Conference: Drew Olson (coach of the year); Philly Lammers (first team); Quinn Wragge (first team); Dani Hoppes (second team); Mary Janovich (second team); Taylor Cockerill (honorable mention); Brenleigh Daum (honorable mention)
2017-18 NAIA All-Americans: Philly Lammers (first team); Quinn Wragge (third team)

Few things in life are as reliable as women’s basketball at Concordia University, Nebraska. Now in his 13th season as head coach, Drew Olson is fresh off leading his program on another storybook ride in 2017-18. It had all the makings of a Fairytale – until the ending.

That ending was a loss in the 2018 NAIA Division II national championship game to rival Dakota Wesleyan. It was one of only two blemishes on a season that was nearly perfect. The Bulldogs are determined not to let that one game cloud their thinking heading into yet another season of high aspirations.

“We have a lot of intrinsic motivation,” Olson said. “We pride ourselves on being an elite team. We want to keep that standard up there. I think our kids are highly motivated, especially since we haven’t reached the ultimate goal. We know there is still more that we have to accomplish.”

When it comes to this program, it’s done just about all there is to do. It has gone to the national semifinals three of the past four seasons and four of the last seven (two national championship game appearances). It has done something no one else has done during the GPAC era – sweep GPAC regular-season and tournament titles in back-to-back years. There’s only one thing missing. Everyone knows what that one thing is.

But if the last 20 or so years of Bulldog women’s basketball have taught us anything, it’s that this program was built to last. After a 36-win campaign that equaled a program record for victories in a season, Concordia finds itself in an enviable position with the return of two All-Americans: first teamer Philly Lammers and third teamer Quinn Wragge. This will be it for the senior Wragge, a major impact player from the moment she stepped on campus.

“It’s been incredible,” said Wragge of her first three seasons. “Throughout my entire time here, there’s never been one time where I felt like this isn’t the place where I’m supposed to be. I love the program. I love the women’s basketball team here. The experiences we get, the memories I’ve made, the friendships I have – It’s gone so fast. I can’t believe I’m a senior, but it’s been awesome.”

Awesome is an appropriate word to describe Lammer’s first two collegiate seasons. That’s all it took her to surpass 1,000 career points. The strong-as-an-ox Lammers has already had her share of big performances in big games. She put up 20 or more points in the quarterfinals, semifinals and championship of last season’s national tournament. One would be hard pressed to find a better post player at this level.

Lammers teams with Wragge, junior Colby Duvel and freshman standout Elsie Aslesen on arguably the top frontcourt in the nation. There are few real weaknesses to Wragge’s game, but she has worked this offseason on becoming more of a shooting threat from the perimeter. Duvel is a glue player, well respected for her hustle, vocal leadership and willingness to scrap for the loose balls. And Aslesen is a name Bulldog fans are about to become more familiar with. Aslesen can play inside and out and will immediately factor into the equation.

When discussing this team, it makes sense to start with the frontcourt considering the presence of Lammers and Wragge, but the backcourt doesn’t have to take a backseat. Taylor Cockerill capped her freshman season with a 17-point performance in the national championship game and should only get better as a sophomore. She’s in the mix at point guard along with University of Nebraska-Kearney transfer Grace Barry.

Now a junior and product of Lincoln East High School, Barry has a flair for the theatrics. In some ways, her game resembles that of former national player of the year Bailey Morris. Barry can score, but she also has a great feel for setting up her teammates.

“I think it’s a great fit both ways,” Olson said. “She needs to be cut loose and allowed to do what she does. In our style of play, she’s going to have that freedom. She’s got a little bit of flash to her and is just so creative. She can get other people shots. It’s a matter of getting her to want to be aggressive and want to be a scorer too. I think once she does that she’s going to be a complete player.”

Anyone who has watched Olson’s teams knows that the Bulldogs come at you in waves that often wear down the opposition. One unsung but reliable performer is junior guard MacKenzie Helman, who will play more off the ball this winter than she did last season when she started at the point. Olson wants to take further advantage of Helman’s outside shooting. Also a junior guard, Riley Sibbel figures to have a larger role this season. Olson has also been impressed by the improvement of junior forward Taryn Schuette.

Aslesen is the freshman most ready to make an impact, but several others should have the opportunity to get their feet wet this winter. Elm Creek, Neb., native Claire Cornell, also a track star, oozes with athletic ability. In addition, the freshman class includes plenty of Lincoln natives such as Lincoln Lutheran grad Mackenzie Koepke.

There’s depth and there’s talent, but this is still the time of year when things are only beginning to come together. Said Olson, “We’re still trying to figure it out. Defensively we can do a lot of things, it’s just – what are we going to be great at? What is our identity going to be in that regard? Last year was interesting because we really didn’t have an identity other than the fact that we could adapt really well. Two years ago we were just strictly zone. I don’t know what this team is going to be like, but we’ll find a way to get it done defensively. Offensively, we’ll continue to play our style and our pace and attack people.”

Olson seems plenty confident that his team will be able to score and score a lot. One of the biggest question marks is how this team will replace the defensive tenacity of departed seniors Dani Hoppes and Mary Janovich in the backcourt. They were the ringleaders for the gnats-at-a-picnic defensive play of the past couple of seasons. But again, this is a program built to withstand the losses of quality players.

Will this be the year that Concordia realizes the ultimate goal? To some degree, the sting of last March lingers.

“When that does come up, it’s we want to go further,” Wragge said of the national championship game. “There’s only one step further we can go than we were last year. That’s our goal for this year. When it does come up, it’s a motivator. It’s something that we want to get past so it’s not a negative this year. Let’s get there again and then go one step further.”

The season will open up next week with the Viterbo Invitational in La Crosse, Wis. The Bulldogs will take on Indiana Wesleyan University in La Crosse at 3 p.m. CT on Friday, Oct. 26. They will then play either Cardinal Stritch University or Viterbo University the following day.