Huskies on top of North Star Conference

By Carl Ackerman

Although the NIU women’s basketball team has been picked to win the North Star Conference, the rigorous level of competition in the NSC is loaded with top-notch talent and lots of excitement.

Along with NIU’s 12-2 conference mark last year, DePaul (12-2) and Wisconsin-Green Bay (11-3) are among the seven teams battling for the NSC title.

NIU is out to complete its’ unfinished work after last season’s conference tournament loss to DePaul. With the absence of DePaul’s scoring machine Diana Vines and the return of NIU’s own scoring threat Carol Owens, the Huskies appear to be in a comfortable position.

The 6-foot-3 Owens finished second to Vines last season in scoring (21.1 ppg), rebounding (9.83 rpg), steals (2.87 spg) and runner-up to teammate Tammy Hinchee in blocked shots (2.73 bpg). She also gained first-team All-NSC honors each of the past two seasons.

However, NIU is a well-balanced team which includes 6-foot-2 senior Hinchee, who led the NSC in blocked shots (2.77 bpg) and finished third in scoring (19.5 ppg).

Denise Dove proves to be a consistent threat with her 12.1 ppg average and 80 three-pointers last season which ranked eighth nationally. Lisa Foss, who averaged 18.6 ppg, missed last season because of knee surgery but will be back this year.

“Mentally and physically, we’re very ready,” said NIU coach Jane Albright. “The main thing is that we need to be a very consistent team throughout the game. Consistency is the real determinant in success and how well we play defensively.”

The question of whether the Huskies will have enough to pull itself ahead of the pack still remains as three-time defending champion DePaul returns four starters and five more letterwinners.

Among these are first-team All-NSC Veronica Ross and second-team All-NSC Melanee Ebrhardt.

Ross tallied 238 assists at guard, which ranked ninth in the nation, and Erhardt averaged 13.7 ppg with 62 three-pointers.

Senior Gail Ash will see plenty of action after last season’s 9.2 ppg and 5.8 rpg as will freshman Kris Maskela, who has been nationally ranked as the 14th-best college freshman.

“Our key is to move away from a single player orientated team,” said third-year DU coach Doug Bruno on the loss of Vines. “It could be a great loss or a great approach. It forces all others to contribute.”

Either way Bruno feels NIU has the edge over everyone else this season.

“On the national level, I consider NIU the equal of probably 12 of the Top 20 teams in the country. I would consider us not quite on the level of NIU, but still equal to some of the lower Top 20 level teams. We’ll have a chance to prove that,” said Bruno.

DePaul prepares for a grueling schedule against many top-ranked teams, but Bruno is confident.

“If you want to become the best, you have to play the best,” said Bruno.

Coach Carol Hammerle from UW-GB wants her team to focus on a somewhat different approach.

“We’re a young team. Our key is the big C word—confidence. That will determine a lot,” said Hammerle, who feels a solid defense will also be a key.

UW-GB lost two All-NSC guards, a starting center and a top reserve shooting guard. Patti Van Swol is the top returning scorer who averaged 6.4 ppg, 3.1 apg and 2.3 spg.

“NIU has the best chance of winning the conference title. They have got most of their players back. I think they are the team to beat. DePaul will probably give NIU a run for their money. They have some strong seniors,” said Hammele, who believes the University of Illinois-Chicago may surprise some people.

That is what UIC coach Francine St. Clair is hoping also.

“Our theme for this year is ‘one more step,'” said St. Clair. “We’re slowly starting to put together a team to put together our long-range goal of contending for a conference championship. I’m looking forward to our best year since I’ve been here, and I want us to get into double digits in wins.”

Although the Flames have only two juniors and two seniors, the team has high hopes for three talented freshman, one junior-college transfer and one medical-redshirt who join a group of seven returning letterwinners.

St. Clair feels her recruits will help win some of those close games. Last season, UIC lost nine games by 10 points or less.

Jacquese Gilbert was UIC’s leading scorer last season and averaged 14.3 ppg. Sheryl Lynch averaged 8.4 ppg overall, but averaged 14.1 ppg in the last quarter.

The Lady Zips of Akron are under a new coach, new system and seven new faces.

“As far as this season goes, I’m not making any predictions,” said Coach Lisa Fitch. “I can promise you though, that we will go out and play hard every contest.”

The main problem for UA will be replacing last year’s two top scorers at the guard position.

Six-foot-two senior center Kerry Massburg is the leading scorer among returnees with a 9.9 ppg average. At forward, Angela Harris and Stacey Burrier will lead the way.

“I don’t know what our record will be, but we will go after people,” said Fitch. “We will change tempo, run at them for 40 minutes on defense, and generally make the other team play a different style than they want to.”

Another team that looks to change its results from last year is Cleveland State which finished 3-25 last season.

Coach Alice Khol believes she has built a solid foundation of youth and experience to accomplish this feat. In fact, Khol feels this may be one of the most talented CSU teams ever because of its depth.

Debra Taylor is among the returners and averaged 16.1 ppg and 8.3 rpg as she won the “Most Outstanding Player” award last season.

Valparaiso coach Dave Welter believes in a balanced attack and emphasizes a team-orientated approach to offense and defense. He is noted for his style of playing 11 or 12 players in and out of the game with each receiving quality playing time.

Aimee Forsman averaged 10.7 ppg and 4.6 rpg in her final 14 games last season. Stephanie Greer will add some scoring punch after last season’s 8.6 average.