UW-Eau Claire women’s basketball team gearing up for another postseason run

Blugolds hope to win WIAC, make NCAA Tournament after last two seasons’ close calls

Sam Janssen

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Photo by Sam Janssen

The Blugolds meet in a huddle during the second half of their final regular season game against UW-Platteville on Feb. 16.

Two straight seasons for the UW-Eau Claire women’s basketball team have ended in late-tournament losses.

In the 2019 Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship, the Blugolds lost in the championship game to UW-Oshkosh. In 2020’s tournament they lost in the semifinals to UW-Whitewater.

Tonja Englund, UW-Eau Claire’s head coach, said their staff has done everything they possibly can this season in scheduling and preparation to make sure their team is ready for a run in the postseason, which they are hoping will culminate in an NCAA tournament berth.

She said a main factor that sets this year’s team apart is the strength of the opponents they’ve faced throughout the regular season. The Blugolds ranked sixth in the nation in strength of schedule in the regular season.

UW-Eau Claire had three wins against top-ten ranked teams and six wins against ranked teams in total.

“In a crazy year with ‘COVID-pause’ and just so many different things happening, the body of work that this group has accomplished is pretty significant and pretty special,” Englund said.

UW-Eau Claire begins WIAC tournament play tonight at home against UW-River Falls in the quarterfinal round after receiving a first-round bye. Tip-off is at 7 p.m. at Zorn Arena.

Englund said their games have had a playoff-type atmosphere night in and night out in the WIAC, which she calls the “toughest (division three) conference in the country.”

In addition to their strength of schedule, the Blugolds’ also have a starting point guard, Jessie Ruden, a third-year player, that leads the WIAC in nine statistical categories, including points per game, three-pointers made per game, minutes played and free throw percentage.

Ruden is even-keeled, calm under pressure and takes over at the end of close games when it really matters, Englund said.

“Jessie is one of the biggest reasons this year that we’ve continued to improve because she’s pushed herself to improve,” Englund said.

Ruden said the team’s confidence in her has allowed her to succeed this season on the court.

“Getting the open shots off the extra passing and the screens, the team really has trust in me and the coaching staff so that helps me build my confidence in order to make those shots. That’s a big factor in it,” Ruden said.

Englund said Ruden’s experience in the prior two postseason runs after being named starting point guard in late December of her freshman year will be valuable as she leads a younger, less experienced team than some of their opponents.

One challenge the team has needed to overcome throughout the season has been their youth, Englund said. 

Due to the NCAA granting all players one extra year of eligibility in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Englund said most of the teams in the conference have fifth-year players and more experience than usual, which is the opposite of UW-Eau Claire’s team, which has mostly younger players and is only graduating one senior this year.

Englund said in addition to the competitive WIAC conference matchups, they scheduled games against tough non-conference opponents like Simpson College, UT-Dallas and Trine to challenge their team to live up to its full potential and build an NCAA tournament-worthy resume.

Englund believes their team has built a strong resume which the team hopes will get them into the NCAA tournament even if they do not secure the automatic bid from winning the WIAC tournament, she said.

Englund said this experience of playing so many quality opponents was what was lacking two years ago when they made the championship game, which she described as a “bubble team.”

Unfinished business

Katie Essen, assistant coach, has taken on a new role in the UW-Eau Claire program as a coach after playing for the team the last four years and graduating last spring. She said she still feels like there is unfinished business after losing in the late rounds of the tournament the last two seasons.

“It’s always tough to relive those moments of how close this team has gotten,” Essen said. “But I know this team is capable of it (winning the championship). I want it just as bad as everyone else just because of all the times we almost got there.”

She said the main lesson the team learned from last year’s loss in the semifinals to UW-Whitewater was to get stronger in the weight room so they don’t let an opponent physically dominate them.

“I think a lot of things we took out from that last game was that we never wanted to be pushed around again.”

Essen said despite there being pros and cons of coaching her former teammates, she is able to coach them effectively because she knows how each of them play and what they are capable of, and she can help them off the court as well.

“I’m sticking around,” Essen said. “I love it. It’s fun to be with the girls and coach.”

Englund said she was thrilled that Essen was able to join the staff after being a “great player” in the program for four years and having a great coach-player relationship with her. She said Essen understands the culture in their program and is a good role model for their players.

“We need more strong female role models that go into coaching and stay in coaching,” Englund said.

Quarterfinal-round matchup

Englund said despite the Blugolds beating UW-River Falls by double digits in both of their matchups this regular season, the quarterfinal matchup promises to be competitive, as UW-River Falls has continued to improve throughout the year and shoots the three well.

UW-Eau Claire beat UW-River Falls at home on Jan. 19, 62-49, and on the road on Feb. 5, 67-54.

Essen said the Blugolds did a good job in the first two matchups of executing and sharing the ball on offense, which Englund, Ruden and Essen all said has been the key to when they have played their best all season long.

Ruden said playing as a team and “showing up hungry” will be the keys to making another run at winning this tournament.

To win against UW-River Falls the Blugolds need to control the tempo, play foul-free and have different players rise to the occasion in crunch time to take some of the pressure off Ruden’s shoulders, Englund said.

She said the team’s play is trending in the right direction and they are entering the postseason in a good rhythm.

“Because we’re playing really well right now, the players are excited to get into the postseason,” Englund said. “We’re going to do damage from the three-seed.”

If UW-Eau Claire beats UW-River Falls tonight, they will play in the semifinals on Wednesday and hope to make a return to the WIAC Championship on Friday, March 25.

Janssen can be reached at [email protected].