From the season opener to the final buzzer of the Great Plains Athletic Conference tournament, coach Jason Christensen focused less on the wins and losses and more on the development of the Dakota Wesleyan University women’s basketball team.
In a sense, it was a new era. The Tigers needed to replace four starters, including a pair of All-Americans, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic that forced limited summer interactions and a month-long quarantine at the start of the year. It wasn’t ideal.
Even as DWU missed the NAIA national tournament for the first time since 2014-15, it avoided a similar losing record. The Tigers finished 14-11 overall, and flipped a 3-6 start to GPAC play to end 12-10. Their season ended on Wednesday, dropping a 70-58 decision to Concordia (Neb.) in the GPAC quarterfinals.
“We basically started over. With COVID being on top of it and not being able to work with our kids in the offseason, there were not a lot of expectations,” Christensen said. “When we started to get into the season, I thought, ‘This team could be OK.’ … They definitely exceeded my expectations of where we were going to be. We raised the bar pretty high for next year.”
The Tigers didn’t have a senior on their roster. Kaylee Kirk was the only returning starter, and they had to implement Presentation College transfer Jada Campbell into the lineup.
But what started as a rocky start turned into an 8-1 record in January. DWU lost five of its last six games, but were within a couple of possessions in the fourth quarter of every loss.
An improved offense (69.4 ppg ranked 7th in GPAC) could flip a couple of those close losses in the future. Still, with a more press-heavy defense, the Tigers continued Christensen’s run of stout defenses by ranking second in scoring defense (61.8).
“I don’t think we were very good offensively,” Christensen said. “But with our mental toughness and defensively, we did a lot of those things and that’s what kept us in games.”
Campbell’s 1.7 blocks per game ranked second in the GPAC and Kirk finished fourth in steals with 2.7 per contest. However, Tripp native Matti Reiner’s versatility to switch from post players to guards proved crucial, too.
DWU had multiple players who could step up on either end of the floor.
The addition of Campbell (11.2 ppg/8.4 rpg) gave the Tigers an inside presence and Kirk (6.6 ppg/5.0 rpg/4.8 apg) continued to be a scrappy defender and facilitate the offense. But the emergence of Reiner (13.7 ppg/6.8 rpg) as she switched to a post player this season oftentimes gave DWU’s offense a spark with her mid-range shot and ability as a playmaker. Meanwhile, true freshman Haidyn Pitsch (14 ppg) led the team in scoring and Rynn Osthus started 18 games.
Numerous bench players also emerged through the season, as Christensen tinkered with his rotation until seemingly the final buzzer. He played 12 players at least 100 minutes, though only the starters topped 300 minutes.
“I thought every kid that played for us improved in some aspect of the game,” Christensen said. “The sky’s the limit with this group. I’m excited about them because there’s so many unknowns.”
Christensen plans on keeping the up-tempo offense that saw the Tigers push the pace more often than in past years. He’ll throw in wrinkles and more ball screens now that his team has had a year to play together.
A second year in the same system with the same roster has him excited for the future. Not to mention the added benefits of a regular offseason.
“We couldn’t do those things last year. We took six weeks off without being in a weight room without a strength and conditioning coach,” Christensen said. “… As young as we were, just trying to teach the kids this is what a college athlete is about, we didn’t get to do that with them (in the summer).”