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College women's basketball: New coach, same old story at UWS

Clint Austin / Wisconsin-Superior guard Hailey Kontny (24) controls the ball during a game against St. Scholastica earlier this season. The senior leads the Yellowjackets into the NCAA Division III tournament today against Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Wisconsin-Superior was already a week into school last September when Yellowjackets women's basketball coach Don Mulhern met with assistant coach Zach Otto-Fisher to tell him he was taking the coaching job at St. Catherine's in St. Paul.

"Right away, Don goes, 'What do you think is best for the girls? What do we need to do to make it a smooth transition?' " Otto-Fisher said.

The answer was right there. The Yellowjackets haven't missed a beat with Otto-Fisher serving on an interim basis, going 23-4 and advancing to their third straight NCAA Division III tournament, where they will play at 7 p.m. today at Wisconsin-Whitewater (24-3).

The UWS women's basketball position will be posted Monday, and Otto-Fisher, 31, will have to go through the entire hiring process, just like everyone else.

"Hopefully I'll be a good candidate," Otto-Fisher said.

Hard to argue with the results. UWS went unbeaten for the third straight season in UMAC play and are now 54-0, including the postseason, since entering the league in 2015.

"I don't know what else I could have possibly done differently," he said.

Otto-Fisher was quick to credit Mulhern for establishing the program, and the players for working hard and carrying themselves in the right way.

"They're fun on the court, but even off the court, they're a tremendous group," Otto-Fisher said. "They do the volunteer work, and they're good in the classroom. You don't coach just to coach the sport; you coach young ladies because you want them to become strong women."

Hailey Kontny, a senior guard from Superior who was named UMAC player of the year for the third straight season, also deflected praise. Kontny made an immediate impact after transferring from Minnesota Duluth to UWS after following her freshman year.

Kontny leads a balanced team in scoring at 16 points per game, but it's defense where this team makes its mark, holding opponents to 55.7 points per game and 35.6 percent shooting. Kontny excels there as well, averaging a team-high 2.0 steals per game while also being an excellent rebounder.

Kontny, who plans on going into coaching a la her father, Superior girls basketball coach Dave Kontny, said she learned from one of the best in Mulhern.

"We were disappointed when we first heard the news, but then we were happy for Don," Kontny said. "He was able to move closer to his family, and that's something he had wanted to do for years. We knew we'd be missing a great coach and somebody who impacted our lives, but he made a lot of sacrifices for us, and now it was time for us to make a sacrifice for him."

It didn't take long for the team to learn that Otto-Fisher was taking over, and in terms of familiarity and ease, the move made sense with team conditioning workouts about to start.

"We were really excited," Kontny said. "We had Zach the year before as an assistant coach and were comfortable with him, so it wasn't a huge transition."

Junior forward Hannah Norlin, who is second on the team in scoring (13.7 ppg) and first in rebounding (7.5 rpg), agreed.

"I think it was good to have someone who was kind of new to the team, but still saw how Don did things," Norlin said. "Zach brought some new insight into things, and that really helped us."

Adding to the smooth transition was the fact veteran coach Harold "Hal" Mulhern, Don's cousin, was back on the bench as an assistant, as was Hadley Skalmoski, who completed her senior year in 2015-16.

Otto-Fisher is from Hutchinson, Minn., where he played football, basketball and baseball. He graduated from UWS with a degree in legal studies in 2008. He didn't play college basketball but took up coaching and fell in love with it.

Otto-Fisher coached the Minnesota Fury, one of the top AAU girls basketball programs in the Upper Midwest, as well as Glencoe-Silver Lake High School, before returning to his alma mater as an assistant last season. His players like the way he listens and allows them to provide input, throwing out plays they didn't like or didn't seem to work and adding their own wrinkles.

With five seniors, including Kontny and fellow defensive stalwart Justine Larson graduating, UWS will have a new look next season. But with the likes of Norlin returning, the Yellowjackets should still be a winner. Whether Otto-Fisher will be at the helm, that remains to be seen, but what he's provided this year looks good on the resume.

"Zach has a very positive and upbeat personality," Norlin said. "That's one of his best qualities. Everyone reacts well to what he says because he doesn't focus on the negatives. If you do that, people can get really down and less confident. He's really helped the girls' confidence this year."

UWS (23-4) VS. WIS.-WHITEWATER (24-3)

What: NCAA Division III women's basketball tournament opener

When: 7 p.m. today

Where: Kachel Gymnasium, Whitewater, Wis.


Radio: KUWS-FM 91.3