Finishing the journey

Women’s basketball returns everyone to make a push to WIAC title


Senior forward Courtney Lewis scored almost 12 points per game last year while garnering honorable mention all-conference honors. – Submitted

Story by Nick Erickson, Editor in Chief

Tonja Englund isn’t afraid of building a team from scratch and risking a few transition years.

In fact, her last conference championship team in 2012, which was dominated by seniors, went through a losing season in 2010 and bowed out of the playoffs early in 2011 before reaching the pinnacle of WIAC women’s basketball.

Her current group, which didn’t lose a single player from last year and has the same projected starting five has endured two straight losing seasons.

But with those freshmen and sophomores now becoming juniors and seniors, Englund’s message is simple: the time is now.

“We take a young group and we get them there,” she said. “I want to have a championship team every year, but even when we played those younger players, we got them there. It is time for this team. I’ve seen that cycle with a lot of my really good teams.”

And there’s no mistake about it, these Blugolds have a concrete goal in mind, and that’s finishing out Englund’s vision and bringing the UW-Eau Claire head coach of 15 years her fifth conference championship.

Only three players – Courtney Lewis, Kristin Sahr and Rachel Engdorf – return from the 2012 team, but Lewis said the same type of feeling is there in the preseason as that banner team had.

“We know what it takes, and we have that same hunger they had,” the senior captain said. “Everyone is just really itching for a good season and that championship title.”

Englund has plenty of talent in her arsenal to make that a reality. All-conference players Lewis and junior guard Teenie Lichtfuss, along with 3-point specialists in senior Kristin Sahr and sophomore Abby Midtlien, can all fill up a stat sheet on any given night.

But this year, post players Rachel Egdorf and Madison Johnson have stepped up their offensive game to assist the four bonafide scorers on the squad.

Egdorf and Johnson both had 17 points in the team’s annual Blue and Gold intrasquad game on Nov. 4.

In 2012, Englund got a lot of production from post players Ellen Plendl and Callie Halama, and she hopes Egdorf and Johnson can fill the shoes in a year full of expectations.

“The key for us is that we really grow from last year with our inside presence,” Englund said. “If you look at our roster, we’re by far one of the biggest teams in the league. We have to back that up.”

Lewis said a strong inside game opens up things for the perimeter players and makes the offense more dynamic in general. By feeding it to the post, she said it creates more space on the floor for open baskets.

“Your post will start scoring, and once that happens, double teams and everything makes them kick it right out for wide open shots and set threes,” she said.

The Blugolds will also look to get a big lift from 6-foot-2 transfer Alleigh Voight as well as sophomore Ellen Blacklock inside.

As far as the guard play goes, fans can expect the same amount of production, if not more, from the experience-laden backcourt, Englund said.

Lichtfuss, who opposing coaches said is one of the tougher matchups in the league because of her athleticism, led the team in scoring at 13.9 points per game last year while dishing out 3.5 assists per contest in her first season at point guard.

Lewis, who will be a four-year starter, scored 11.4 points a night and grabbed a team-high 5.7 rebound per game in 2013-14.

Midtlien and Sahr have both caught fire from beyond the 3-point arc and have career highs of over 20 points in a game.

In the preseason poll from the league’s sports information directors, the Blugolds were picked sixth while UW-Oshkosh and UW-Whitewater were picked to finish one and two.

But the postseason polls are what matters.

“Rankings came out and we were sixth, and I don’t agree with that, obviously,” Lewis said. “Nobody does, and nobody is going to be happy with that until we show everybody what we can do, and I really believe we will be at the top of the conference this year.”

The first steps begin Saturday as the Blugolds host Coe College (Iowa) at 8 p.m. Saturday night in Zorn Arena. They will come back at 5 p.m. Sunday to face Hamline (Minn.), also in Zorn Arena.