Despite just three returning players, one strength of this year’s Central Lakes College Raiders team is experience.
The seven new faces on this year’s CLC women’s team enter the season with extensive basketball backgrounds, playing experiences and court savvy.
Head coach Dennis Eastman, who enters his 18th season, hopes that will make for a quick transition to the college game and help with the move from the Northern Division into the South.
“Moving into the South will be interesting,” said Eastman. “One of the crazy things is we will be on the road every Wednesday. So we’ll be driving to Rochester, Worthington and Austin on Wednesdays. Those are some long road trips during the middle of the week and we’ll have to learn how to balance that. On the opposite side, every Saturday we’re home. That’s a good thing.
“The South is going to be tough. Anoka-Ramsey is always ranked in the top 10. Rochester is always in the top 10. We’ll be running into some very good programs.”
Leading the charge against those elite programs will be sophomores Stephanie Neugebauer, Carlee Davich and Brittany Gravelle.
Neugebauer, (forward, Brainerd) is coming off knee surgery, which kept her off the court most of last season. Eastman said she’s slowly returning to her freshman form.
“She’s looking really good,” Eastman said. “This is the second week of practice now and she’s getting more confidence with her knee. She was leery of it at first. She wasn’t really sure how it was going to react. She’s fine. Every day she is getting more confidence back. At times in practice we’ll sit back and watch her play and go, ‘Holy smokes.’”
Davich (forward, Little Falls) returns as the main deep threat off last year’s team that finished 6-19 overall, 5-9 in the Northern Division. The former Flyer brings a calming presence to the squad.
“Carlee is going to come in and be our 3-point shooter,” said Eastman. “She did that very well last year and hit some big shots. She’s very aggressive. She’s a coach’s daughter and comes from an athletic family. She thrives on this stuff.”
Gravelle will handle the ball and run the show. Eastman likes her understanding of the game and her ability to lead younger teammates. But this isn’t the normal freshman crop.
“These girls come in with a lot of experience,” he said. “We’re putting in things a lot quicker than we normally would to elevate their game and get them ready for the college game.”
Freshman point guard Nikki Pearson of Staples-Motley is one of those eager players. Last year’s Brainerd Dispatch Co-Player of the Year, Pearson reached 1,000 career points in helping the Cardinals to the Section 6-2A finals.
Taking care of the paint will be Katie Hochsprung (center, Little Falls). After a year away from basketball, Hochsprung is back playing after helping the Flyers to the Section 8-3A final two years ago.
“I recruited her and Carlee together,” said Eastman. “She was coming through a lot of injuries from high school and just wanted to take some time off. I really like the way she uses her body and passes the ball. She’s got a little baby hook and that’s something I haven’t seen in at least 10 years. She can go left or right with it and every time I see her use it I just kind of giggle. A lot of old-timers in the stands are going to like that shot.”
Also returning to the court after a stint away is Lindsey (Jourdan) Roos. The former Brainerd Warriors guard is back and will provide athleticism in the backcourt.
“This is a very athletic team,” said Eastman. “I figured it would be when I started recruiting. This is also one of the older groups that I’ve ever had. We have some maturity. We’re a little bit more mature, but very athletic. If we can find ways to match those things together, we’ll have a good season.”
Brittany Gravelle (guard, Mound Westonka)
Carlee Davich (forward, Little Falls)
Stephanie Neugebauer (forward, Brainerd)
Betsy Helmeke (guard, New York Mills)
Lindsey Roos (guard, Brainerd)
Nikki Pearson (guard, Staples-Motley)
Elizabeth Mattson (forward, Aitkin)
Katie Hochsprung (center, Little Falls)
Kelsey Wheeler (forward, Northland)
Angie Richards (center, Hawley)
JEREMY MILLSOP may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5856.