Oct. 12, 2005
As the Lisa Bluder era enters year six, the foundation is in place for another exciting season of Iowa women’s basketball. Although the Hawkeyes lost experienced players Lindsay Richards and Johanna Solverson to season-ending ACL injuries last summer, Coach Bluder and her staff are confident the Hawkeyes will overcome the adversity with the help of strong veteran leadership and a crop of talented freshmen.
The Hawkeyes return eight letterwinners, including two starters from last year’s squad that went 23-10 overall, won the Hawkeye Challenge and Junkanoo Jam holiday tournaments and advanced to the WNIT Final Four. Although the team was disappointed in not receiving an at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament, Iowa played well down the stretch, winning seven of its last nine contests.
Despite a good overall record last season, the team wants to improve its Big Ten standing and return to the NCAA Tournament. Iowa placed sixth in the conference after recording an 8-8 mark. Iowa was able to post its best overall record in nine years with only one senior and two freshmen starting most of the year.
Hawkeye fans saw the emergence of two stars that helped Iowa collect the most victories in a single season since the 1995-96 season. Crystal Smith electrified fans around the country with her speed, quickness, scoring ability and determination while Krista VandeVenter made a big splash on the scene by dominating the glass and serving as a perfect compliment to departing senior Jamie Cavey in the frontcourt.
Smith averaged 16.8 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.0 apg and 2.4 spg last year. Smith, who was a third team all-Big Ten selection and named to the WNIT all-tournament team, posted sparkling numbers even though she was forced to split time at the point and off-guard spot. The native of Haughton, LA, produced a +12.9 scoring increase from her sophomore to junior year to rank second in the nation. VandeVenter pulled down an Iowa freshman single season record 252 rebounds and also averaged 7.3 ppg. The native of Osseo, MN, was named to the all-Big Ten Freshman Team and was a constant force in the paint in her first year of collegiate competition.
With a good nucleus returning and the addition of five fresh faces, Bluder looks for the Hawkeyes to have an even better year in 2005-06.
“Not making the NCAA Tournament was probably one of my biggest disappointments while I’ve been an Iowa coach because I sincerely felt like we deserved to be included,” Bluder said. “But I always say that teams that play well in the WNIT are the teams that sincerely want to still be playing basketball that time of year; and I think we proved to everyone that we wanted to play basketball. I think we made the most of a bad situation, which is a great lesson for your players to learn. We will definitely use it as motivation so it doesn’t happen again.”
Iowa was eager to regain the services of Richards, but the red-shirt junior point guard suffered her third ACL injury on her right knee in June and will miss the season. The native of Barrington, IL, played in only eight games her freshman year before sustaining her first ACL tear. She played in all 29 games her sophomore season, but then missed last season due to her second ACL tear that occurred while practicing with the Big Ten All-Star Foreign Tour Team.
“We are just devastated for Lindsay,” commented Bluder. “Nobody should have to go through an ACL injury three times. She worked so hard on coming back after each of her prior surgeries. I feel bad for Lindsay and also the loss that it creates for our team. We were counting on having a point guard with her experience this upcoming season, but this injury will force us to change our plans.”
With Richards out of the picture again this season, look for sophomore Abby Emmert and freshman Kristi Smith to direct the Hawkeye offense. Emmert started the first 14 games last season at point guard and came off the bench in 18 additional contests. She ranked sixth on the squad in assists. Kristi Smith was a two-time Colorado all-state and four-time all-conference honoree while she competed for Thornton High School. Crystal Smith also has some experience at point guard and can be looked upon to spell relief for Kristi Smith and Emmert if needed.
“Crystal has got to be one of the quickest and most explosive players that I have ever had the opportunity to coach. It is such a luxury when you have a player of her abilities because you able to put so much pressure on the defense in transition.”
Lisa Bluder on Crystal Smith
Crystal Smith will see most of her time at off-guard with freshman Lindsey Nyenhuis and senior Ebone Pope coming off the bench. Nyenhuis was a two-time Michigan all-state honorable mention while competing for Forest Northern High School. Pope played in eight games for the Hawkeyes last year as a walk-on.
Bluder is excited to see what Crystal Smith will bring to the table her senior year.
“Crystal has got to be one of the quickest and most explosive players that I have ever had the opportunity to coach. It is such a luxury when you have a player of her abilities because you able to put so much pressure on the defense in transition. It even makes rebounding easier because the defense is trying to get back.” Bluder went on to say, “Crystal goes hard all the time — I love that about her. Her ability to shoot the three or penetrate makes her very difficult to defend because she can do both so well. I think Crystal is one of the most enjoyable players to watch in the Big Ten. She is worth the price of a season ticket to come out and enjoy her athleticism on the floor.”
The loss of Solverson was another blow to the team’s skill level and depth. Before injuring her knee in August, she played in all but one game her first three seasons with the Hawkeyes. Last year she amassed 359 points, 136 assists, 128 rebounds and 70 steals to became only the second Hawkeye player to ever record over 350 points, 125 rebounds and assists and 70 steals in a single season.
“We are tremendously disappointed,” said Bluder. “In a matter of six weeks, we lost two key players to injury. We feel so badly that Johanna has to endure this setback, but we are confident that she will have a strong rehab and return for a great senior campaign.”
With Solverson on the sidelines that means senior Tiffany Reedy, sophomore Jeneé Graham and freshman Wendy Ausdemore will all see significant action at the small forward position. A two-time tri-captain, Reedy finished last year ranked sixth in scoring (3.9) and rebounding (2.4) off the bench. Reedy played in 94 career games, including 14 starts her first three seasons. Graham played in 30 games last year, including four starts. She ranked fourth on the team in offensive rebounds (30). Ausdemore, who stands 6-2, was named 2005 Miss Iowa Basketball and is also a two-time all-state selection.
After a stellar freshman season, VandeVenter was one of 60 top student-athletes invited to participate in the USA Basketball Women’s National Team Trials at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs this past summer. In addition to ranking first on the Hawkeyes in rebounding last season, she ranked fourth in assists. Not one to rest on her laurels, VandeVenter has the potential to solidify herself as one of the best players in the league after working on her offensive game during summer workouts.
Krista VandeVenter was an all-Big Ten Freshman team selection last year.
“Krista has been working on making her outside shot more consistent and getting confidence in shooting that 15-foot jump shot,” said Bluder. “That is a big part of our offense, a lot of times we have our bigs come out and shoot from out there and she’s become more confident in that position.
“Krista had a tremendous first year. She stepped in right away as a starter and was a factor for us in many close games. I think she has so many great opportunities and she can be an unbelievable player before she leaves the University of Iowa.”
Senior Morgan Kasperek and freshman Nicole VanderPol will spell VandeVenter off the bench. Kasperek saw action in all 33 contests, averaged 2.2 ppg and 2.1 in 10.5 minutes per game. VanderPol helped Grundy Center High School to the Class 2A state championship her senior year and earned all-state recognition both her junior and senior years.
The Hawkeyes will need to fill the void left by two-time all-Big Ten performer Jamie Cavey at center. Cavey ranked second on the Hawkeyes in scoring (16.5) and rebounding (7.1). This is nothing new to Coach Bluder and her coaching staff as four different players have started at center the five years the staff has coached in Iowa City. According to Bluder, sophomore Stacy Schlapkohl and freshman Megan Skouby will fight for the starting nod. Schlapkohl played in 31 games, averaged 2.8 ppg and 1.1 rpg in 9.0 minutes of action last season. Skouby, who is 6-6 and the tallest women’s basketball player in Iowa history, joins the Hawkeyes as a two-time all-state selection and was named the Associated Press Ohio co-Player of the Year her senior year.
“Stacy has a slight edge over Megan because she has one year of collegiate experience,” Bluder said. “Megan is a tremendous inside player from a high school system. The key will be how quickly Megan is able to adjust to the college game. She has the size and background to do a nice job for us.”
Bluder is thrilled about the potential and talent of the incoming five-member freshmen class. As before mentioned, a couple of the freshmen will have an opportunity to make an immediate impact.
“I think all of our freshmen have a chance to make an impact, but when you look at position needs, Megan, Wendy and Kristi have a great opportunity because we are trying to fill their respective positions due to injury and graduation,” said Bluder.
Bluder points to three crucial areas in which her coaching staff are focusing their attention this year to improve the Hawkeyes.
“I think we can easily improve our free throw percentage,” commented Bluder. “We also need to lower turnovers and raise our 3-point field goal percentage.”
Iowa will play one of its most challenging schedules during Bluder’s tenure. The Hawkeyes can potentially play 12 teams that played in the postseason last year, including 10 in the NCAA Tournament. Iowa is slated to play NCAA Tournament teams Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan State twice during the regular season, while it will also square off against Minnesota, Purdue, Iowa State, UW-Green Bay, Oklahoma and Louisiana Tech once. Iowa and Rutgers will meet in the Hawkeye Challenge championship game if both teams advance. Iowa will also face WNIT opponents Illinois (twice) and Creighton. The Hawkeyes will play their 900th game on Feb. 2, 2006 vs. Purdue in Iowa City.
“Having Rutgers play in the KCRG-TV9 Hawkeye Challenge will be one of the most exciting events in Carver-Hawkeye Arena this year,” Bluder said. “Bringing C. Vivian Stringer, the person who took Iowa to the Final Four, back with a team that is ranked in the top five in may pre-season polls is going to be a great treat for all Iowa fans. The Hawkeye fans continue to love Vivian, as they should. It will be an emotional event for our fans and Vivian.
“I think the Big Ten will be just as difficult as it was last year. We return a lot of great players. The last two years we’ve had teams playing in the Final Four and I think everyone around the country recognizes how difficult this league is. It will be as strong as it has ever been.”