CEDAR FALLS — Tanya Warren has contemplated a trip to the tattoo parlor sometime between now and her team’s Nov. 5 exhibition tip-off with Sioux Falls.
Northern Iowa enters the upcoming women’s basketball season with nine underclassmen accounting for as young a team as Warren has coached entering her 11th year at the helm of UNI’s program. Five newcomers join this year’s team, while the lone senior, graduate transfer point guard Kennedy Kirkpatrick, is one of three players entering year two with the Panthers.
“Can you say patience?” Warren deadpanned, before pointing to her right wrist. “I’m going to get a tattoo. Right here, patience.”
Certainly there will be a learning curve for this year’s Panthers following the graduation of three senior starters, including point guard Madison Weekly, who averaged 15.2 points a game and finished her career third on UNI’s all-time scoring chart.
Still, plenty of youth played considerable minutes on last year’s UNI team that earned non-conference wins over Creighton and No. 24 Kansas State to help justify the program’s first at-large NCAA Tournament bid following back-to-back 24-win seasons for the first time in school history.
“I think what’s driving us the most is just getting back to that NCAA Tournament,” said center Megan Maahs, who averaged 7.5 points and 6.7 rebounds to earn a spot on the MVC all-freshman squad. “It was incredible and such a fun ride. I think that’s one of our big goals in mind. With that, I think our leadership has really come around. Leading the five freshmen is something we take pride in.”
Maahs joins junior wing Mikaela Morgan and junior returning all-conference selection Ellie Howell as this year’s team captains. Warren anticipates Kirkpatrick starting at point guard in order to help facilitate for Howell, who averaged 13.1 points during league play on 43.8 percent shooting and ranked second to Weekly in made 3-pointers.
With Howell occupying a similar role, UNI’s coach feels growth from Morgan and Maahs’ former Western Dubuque high school teammate, Rose Simon-Ressler, could be crucial to the team’s offensive success.
“The fact that Mikaela Morgan has made such a great jump will allow Ellie to continue to do what she does,” Warren said. “Rose Ressler has made a tremendous jump, as well. If those two can continue to do what they have done in practice, it takes a lot of pressure off of Ellie.”
Morgan says she embraces pumping up teammates and taking on a larger leadership role. She enters the season with more confidence in her own game.
“I am working on being more aggressive on the offensive end,” said Morgan, who averaged 7.2 points as a true sophomore. “I worked a lot on my shot this summer and a few more skills handling the ball, and I’m going to use it to my advantage.”
UNI’s non-conference schedule includes rematches with Creighton and Kansas State on the road, while Iowa and Iowa State each visit the McLeod Center.
Inside the MVC, Drake graduated the league’s player of the year and its point guard from a team that completed a perfect 21-0 record against conference foes. Missouri State returns four starters, including preseason player of the year Liza Fruendt, while Indiana State, Bradley and Southern Illinois also have plenty of experience.
“I don’t think it’s about taking big leaps at this point with this team,” Kirkpatrick said. “I think it’s more about taking it step by step and just growing together.”
Added Warren, “Winning doesn’t mean you did everything right. Losing doesn’t mean you did everything wrong. We have to be able to evaluate and stay positive with this young group. We know big picture-wise this group is going to be very, very good.”
STARTING FIVE: If forced to name a starting five today, Warren says Kirkpatrick, Howell, Morgan, Maahs and forward Heidi Hillyard would get the nod. Hillyard shot a team-high 51.7 percent from the field in conference play last season and ranked third with an average of 3.4 rebounds in 12.8 minutes of court time.
RETURNING DEPTH: Abby Gerrits gave UNI a mid-season spark as a true freshman off the bench, knocking down 11 3-pointers at a 45.8 percent success rate and drawing five starts before an ACL injury ended her breakout run. Warren says she’s been limited in practice, but hopes to have Gerrits available for the Nov. 10 season opener with IUPUI.
FRESH FIVE: Karli Rucker, a former prep soccer standout and the point guard on North Scott’s Class 4A state championship basketball team, was singled out as a newcomer who will be relied on for minutes. She’s projected to back up Kirkpatrick at the point guard position.
“Karli is a true point guard, extremely quick, good hands, good feet, shoots the basketball well when she looks to shoot it,” Warren said. “We have to get on her to shoot the basketball. At the point guard position at this level she has to be a vocal leader. She can’t wait for anybody else. She has to command the attention of her team. ... I like her competitiveness. She doesn’t back down.”
Freshman guard Nicole Kroeger projects as a strong perimeter defender while fellow guard Riley Wheatcraft is a player Warren said, “can flat out score.” Marissa Robson of Oregon, Wis., and Bre Gunnels of Kansas City, Mo., are a pair of 6-foot-1 forwards with the size and athleticism to be difference-makers at the collegiate level.
Nov. 5—Sioux Falls (exhibition), 4 p.m., 10—IUPUI, 7 p.m., 14—Iowa State, 7 p.m., 21—at Creighton, 7 p.m., 25—at Orlando, Fla. (vs. Wyoming), 11 a.m., 26—at Orlando, Fla. (vs. UCF), 12:30 p.m., 30—at South Dakota State, 7 p.m.
Dec. 2—at North Dakota, 2 p.m., 6—at Nebraska-Omaha, 7 p.m., 10—Wisconsin-Parkside, 1 p.m., 17—Iowa, 2 p.m., 21—at Kansas State, 7 p.m., 29—Loyola Chicago, 7 p.m., 31—Valparaiso, 2 p.m.
Jan. 5—at Southern Illinois, 6 p.m., 7—at Missouri State, 2 p.m., 12—Evansville, 7 p.m., 14—Indiana State, 2 p.m., 19—at Drake, 7 p.m., 26—at Bradley, 7 p.m., 28—at Illinois State, 2 p.m.
Feb. 2—Missouri State, 7 p.m., 4—Southern Illinois, 2 p.m., 9—at Indiana State, 6 p.m., 11—at Evansville, 1 p.m., 16—Drake, 7 p.m., 23—Illinois State, 7 p.m., 25—Bradley, 2 p.m.
March 1—at Valparaiso, 7 p.m., 3—at Loyola-Chicago, 1 p.m., 8-11—at MVC Tournament, Moline, Ill., TBD.