DWU women eye playoff runMidway through the season, the Dakota Wesleyan women’s basketball team has surpassed its win total from last year.
By: Justin Rust, The Daily Republic
Midway through the season, the Dakota Wesleyan women’s basketball team has surpassed its win total from last year.
The Tigers are 9-7 after winning two games against Arizona Christian on Dec. 17 and 19. On Dec. 9, DWU beat York to earn its seventh win of the year.
Last year, the Tigers finished the season with a 6-25 record in Jason Christensen’s first year at the helm. In 2009-10, DWU went 8-23, so the 2011-12 Tigers already have more wins than in the last two seasons.
Christensen said it has been an exciting season so far.
“Going into the season, you always want to improve,” he said. “The players knew they needed to get better, and they put in the extra time in the offseason to get to that extra level. This is proof that hard work pays off.”
Winning just six games took its toll on the whole team. Christensen said by the second-to-last game last year, he could tell the team was sick of losing.
DWU guard and Mitchell native Taylor Piper said while last year was hard on the team, it was also a good learning experience.
“Last year, it was tough and it’s something I never want to go through again,” she said. “It’s not something that’s fun, and after experiencing it, we knew we didn’t want to be there again.
“So we worked hard and that hard work is paying off.”
If DWU wins four more games, it will match the 2008-09 season total of 13 wins. If the Tigers can keep their record above .500, it will be only the second time since the 2004-05 season DWU will finish the year with a winning record. The other time was in 2007-08 when DWU had a 17-15 record under Aaron Kahl, who Christensen replaced.
But Christensen is not happy with just finishing with more wins than last year. His goal coming into the season was to have his team make it to the NAIA Division II national tournament.
He knows the team has to qualify for the Great Plains Athletic Conference tournament first, though.
“Our goal is to get to the national tournament, but we have to take it one step at a time,” he said. “We have to make the playoffs first.”
In the GPAC preseason poll, DWU was picked to finish last in the conference.
Currently, DWU is 1-6 in the GPAC and in 10th place out of 11 teams. The top eight teams make the playoffs in the GPAC. Dordt, which the Tigers beat earlier this year, are in eighth place with a 2-5 conference record.
DWU had a couple of close GPAC losses. The Tigers dropped a 64-59 road loss to then-No. 5 ranked Hastings on Dec. 3. DWU had a lead late against then-No. 5 Morningside College on Dec. 7, but the Tigers did not hold on and lost 73-64 in Sioux City, Iowa.
DWU also dropped a 64-58 game on the road to Doane on Dec. 16.
Even though the team has improved since last year, Christensen said the next step is to get his team to win those close games.
“Everything is a process, and that’s one of the processes,” he said. “We got the kids to play together and get some wins, now we have to figure out how to win those tough, close games.
“We played with the top teams in the nation and know we can compete with them, we just have to finish the games.”
Piper said if the team could have won a couple of those games, they could possibly be receiving attention from the national poll.
“There are definitely a few games that sting because we were in a good place to win them,” she said. “If we would have won some of those games, we could be getting attention in the polls, but we all know what we are capable of.”
The Tigers are in prime position to make a move up the GPAC rankings when their second-half conference schedule kicks off on Jan. 4. DWU plays Midland at home in the Corn Palace, which is the one team below the Tigers in the GPAC standings with a 0-8 conference record.
After Midland, DWU plays Jan. 7 in Lincoln, Neb., against Nebraska Wesleyan University, which is 2-5 in the GPAC.
“We will really know where we are at when we are done with Midland and Nebraska Wesleyan,” Christensen said. “If we beat them, it would put us in the eighth spot.”
But even if the Tigers win both games and climb to eighth in the conference, DWU will have a tough road to maintain that position. After Nebraska Wesleyan, the Tigers face the defending NAIA national champions and No. 20th-ranked Northwestern, followed by a rematch with Hastings, which has fallen to eighth in the national polls.
The Tigers still have matchups remaining with Briar Cliff, Morningside and Concordia, which are all ranked in the top 10. Briar Cliff is No. 3, Morningside is No. 5 and Concordia is No. 7.
The second half of the schedule is just as hard as the first part, though, Christensen said.
“We had a really tough GPAC schedule,” he said. “We came right out of the chute and played the top teams right away, which I think will make us better in the end.
“You play everyone twice, and with playing everyone twice, you can see how much you have improved.”
Even with a number of tough games coming up on the schedule, Piper said the GPAC tournament is definitely in sight.
“We are looking to the future, but we are also looking at the present,” she said. “We have to focus on getting wins in the rest of the GPAC games so we can get a good seed to be successful in the GPAC tournament.”
Despite a tough schedule, Christensen said he thinks this team has a good chance to make the GPAC playoffs.
“I am very confident we can get to that eighth seed,” he said. “If we keep progressing, I think we have a chance to be higher than the eighth seed.”