Women’s basketball preview: turning the tides around

At the beginning of last year’s season, the UW-Eau Claire women’s basketball team had to replace the bulk of its starting lineup and depend on young players to shoulder a lot of the offensive and defensive load while other top WIAC teams returned a lot of their scoring from the year before.

One year later, the shoe is on the other foot.  Head coach Tonja Englund, about to begin her 14th year at the helm of the program, said other top teams in the conference graduated heavily a season ago while her team, which doesn’t have a single senior on the roster, returns a core nucleus of players.

Englund said last season was a learning experience for her team, which went 11-15 overall after sharing the WIAC title the year before. She said she can already see last season paying off.

“To have the number of people we have returning, we’ve moved along faster in a lot of respects,” Englund said. “It’s been nice for our younger players who are new because there are people in our junior and sophomore class who have great leadership.”

Two of those players consistently saw the starting lineup and big numbers.

Sophomore guard Teenie Lichtfuss, who Englund said will play the point guard position to open up the year, averaged 7.4 points per game and led the team in three-pointers made per game during her freshman campaign.

Lichtfuss, who scored a team-high 21 points in the Blue and Gold scrimmage on Nov. 4, said she learned a lot from last year and knows what to expect this time around.

“Coming in this year, I was a lot more confident,” Lichtfuss said. “I knew  what  coach was expecting, I knew the girls. For me, it was more that I wanted to come in and play hard instead of come in and just hope to learn the ropes.”

The Blugolds also have a returning All-conference player to boast in junior forward and team co-captain Courtney Lewis. Lewis, who has been a part of the starting lineup for two years now, received honorable mention All-WIAC honors after averaging 10.2 ppg and 4.3 rebounds per game.

Lewis said she is taking her role seriously as the offensive leader and she is willing to be the go-to person on that end of the floor.

“I just want to always make sure they can rely on me and be that person that if we need a game-winning shot, I’d gladly be that person,” Lewis said.

But Lichtfuss and Lewis won’t have to do it alone. Englund said the team has a lot of offensive weapons with the ability to score from anywhere on the floor.

She said even though she has a taller lineup than in years past, the team can stretch a defense out with outside shooting, something all of her players have the ability to do.

“We have a lot of people who can get out and shoot the ball deep,” Englund said. “I think a big strength of ours will be on any given night, we can play ten.”

Despite the experience, the Blugolds still have six freshmen and two transfers on their roster. However, Lewis said with three weeks into practice, everybody is getting to know one another’s tendencies on the court and the gelling process has gone smoothly.

“We’ve all been getting along really well off the court, and I think that shows on the court as well,” Lewis said.

Veteran players and incoming players will all be shooting to reclaim the conference’s top spot. Even though the team had a goal meeting and vowed not to set any concrete goals just yet, Lewis said  she has a few things in mind.

“Definitely winning  the WIAC, that would be our main goal,” Lewis said. “Then, of course, making the (NCAA) tournament and making it as far as we can.”

The Blugolds will take their first steps toward that mission Friday night, at the UWEC Tip-Off Classic against Carroll University and Saturday night in the same tournament against Luther College (Iowa).

Englund, who has two unbeaten seasons at home, said this weekend is important to continue the home court advantage that has been prevalent throughout her coaching tenure.

“We start off first and foremost with winning our non-conference games and winning at Zorn right away, re-establish this as a tough place to play,” Englund said.

Tip off is set for 8 p.m., Friday and 5 p.m., Saturday in Zorn Arena.