CEDAR FALLS — The possibilities are endless.
That was the overarching message Monday as the University of Northern Iowa women’s basketball team held its annual preseason media day.
The roster is loaded with experienced veterans from a 20-13 WNIT team and a handful of newcomers who could make an impact. There is inside-outside depth and balance within that roster and the versatility to play big, play small or play somewhere in between.
A non-conference schedule that begins with an exhibition Sunday at the McLeod Center against Upper Iowa features opponents like Missouri, Iowa, Alabama, Ohio State, Creighton and Iowa State offers opportunities to make some noise on a national stage.
“It’s the toughest non-conference schedule we’ve had,” said head coach Tanya Warren. “We always play a tough non-conference schedule. In our mind in order to get better and compete with the best you’ve got to play really good teams. This schedule’s going to allow us to be prepared for a very, very, very tough Missouri Valley Conference.”
Nobody needed to talk about expectations. UNI has posted three 20-wins seasons in the last four years, has made nine postseason appearances in the past 10 years, has finished at .500 or better in the Missouri Valley Conference 11 straight seasons and has reached the semifinals of the league tournament five straight seasons, including three trips to the finals.
“We’re excited. We’re looking forward to seeing where this season takes us,” said Warren, who is beginning her 13th season as the Panthers’ head coach. “The one thing we talk a lot about with our young women every day ... it’s not about perfection, it’s about progression every single day.”
UNI will lean on senior guards Karli Rucker and Rose Simon-Ressler and junior forward Megan Maahs for leadership. Maahs is back after knee surgery sidelined her last season, while guard Kam Finley also returns after an abbreviated season.
The other veterans are guards Nicole Kroeger and Abby Gerrits, forwards Bre Gunnels, and Heidi Hillyard and center Cynthia Wolf. Fresno State transfer Kristina Cavey, redshirt freshman Kiana Barney and true freshmen Cailyn Morgan, Sara McCullough and Kaitlin Winston round out the roster.
“Last year a lot of people got some great experience due to some injuries,” said Simon-Ressler. “So we have the experience ready for this year and there are a lot of people who are going to step up, I think, whether that’s on offense or defense.
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“People have been stepping up.”
Rucker embraces the possibilities, as well.
“All our components individually, and then when we come together as a team,” she said. “I think we could have something really special here.”
Of course, the Panthers are far from a finished product. Defense has been the foundation under Warren (UNI is 78-0 when holding opponents to 50 or fewer points during her tenure).
“Defensively, we are not where we were at this time a year ago,” said Warren. “We’re doing a lot of teaching in terms of what we want to do on ball-screen action, getting the help, defending the basketball one-on-one, being more physical, boxing out ... a lot of different things like that.
“Because that is really where we hang our hats, we will take the time and do a lot of breakdown and continue to do that throughout the course of the year. But we are getting better.”
Warren does like the competitiveness she’s seen on the practice floor.
“I have been extremely pleased with the competitiveness, whether we’re going against ourselves or going against the guys,” she noted. “Our attention to detail is not exactly where I want it, nor should it be at this time of year, but I like how hard our young women are working.
“Overall I like the effort.”