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College women’s basketball preview: New-look UMD will still be tough to beat

Defending NSIC champion Bulldogs have high expectations despite graduating three seniors.

Members of the Minnesota Duluth women's basketball team huddling together
Members of the Minnesota Duluth women's basketball team huddle together at the end of their practice at Romano Gym on the campus of UMD on Thursday, Oct. 27.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Maesyn Thiesen admits there have been times she has looked around on the court this season and said, “Wow, this looks different.”

That’s because it is different, but different can be good. Really good.

Minnesota Duluth will have a new look this season as the Bulldogs graduated three starters in Sarah Grow (9.7 points per game), Ann Simonet (7.1 ppg) and Payton Kahl (5.5 ppg). Those three, along with Brooke Olson (18.0 ppg) and Thiesen (8.8 ppg), formed UMD’s nucleus the past three seasons when UMD went a combined 64-13, including last year as the Bulldogs went 24-5 while sharing top overall honors in the NSIC with St. Cloud State, as both teams went 19-2 in conference play.

At 6-foot-2, Grow provided a big presence inside while leading the Bulldogs with 58 blocks, Simonet was a feisty player, topping the Bulldogs in 3-pointers made (36) and steals (49) while Kahl provided unsung versatility, a 6-foot guard/forward who could play inside and out.

“It had been a while with all of us starting on the floor,” Thiesen said. “It was fun as it was happening. It was a good time.”

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But like all good things, it was time to move on.

UMD has a couple really good players to build around in their two fifth-year players, Olson (Rice Lake, Wisconsin) and Thiesen (Sauk Centre, Minnesota).

Olson is a three-time NSIC player of the year while Thiesen is a workhorse, having played the most minutes of any UMD player the past two seasons.

The Bulldogs’ goals are still to win the conference title and make a run in the NCAA Division II tournament.

Minnesota Duluth senior guard/forward Madelyn Granica fires a shot
Minnesota Duluth senior guard/forward Madelyn Granica, left, gets ready to fire a successful three-pointer during practice for the women's basketball team at Romano Gym on the campus of UMD on Thursday, Oct. 27.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

“Just being successful for a few years now, we always have that expectation no matter who is on the floor,” Thiesen said. “We’re always going to want to be successful. Even now, a lot of my teammates who are playing more minutes, they have seen that culture and that culture is just so evident. It makes it exciting, but also, the expectation is there. We want to win, and we’re going to do what we need to do to be successful.”

So far, so good as UMD is off to a 2-1 start going into Tuesday night’s NSIC opener against St. Cloud State.

“It’ll be exciting to play St. Cloud,” Thiesen said. “St. Cloud always has such good teams. It’ll be a good matchup.”

Olson once again leads the way in the early going this fall at 20 points and 4.3 rebounds per game while Thiesen is averaging 8.7 ppg and 3.0 rpg.

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“Here we go again,” UMD coach Mandy Pearson said.

Pearson was asked what she was most excited about.

“I get Brooke Olson and Maesyn Thiesen back,” she said. “I think the best thing to come out of COVID was that I got to keep some really strong leaders a year longer than they normally would have been here (thanks to the NCAA granting another year of eligibility). That makes my job and my life a lot easier. The energy on the squad is really strong.”

Minnesota Duluth head coach Mandy Pearson looking on during practice
Framed by players in motion, Minnesota Duluth head coach Mandy Pearson, second from left, looks on during practice for the women's basketball team at Romano Gym on the campus of UMD Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022.
Dan Williamson / Duluth News Tribune

Among the newer faces, Ella Gilbertson, a 6-foot junior guard/forward, is averaging 9.0 ppg and 4.3 rpg coming off the bench. Senior guards Taytum Rhoades (6.7 ppg, team-leading 5.0 rpg) and Kaylee Nelson (6.3 ppg and 2.7 rpg), as well as senior guard/forward Madelyn Granica (5.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg), have rounded out the starting rotation.

“We basically had the same team for three years, but now other people are going to have opportunities,” Pearson said. “It’s going to be fun just to see what we’re made of this year. I think it’ll be a year where we just keep getting better and better every step of the way.”

Granica was already a known commodity to Bulldogs’ fans. She is a strong, gritty player who played valuable minutes for the Bulldogs in previous seasons.

Junior guard Taya Hakamaki, meanwhile, the 2020 News Tribune All-Area Player of the Year from Cromwell, has provided a spark off the bench. Hakamaki is averaging six points and two steals in just 16.7 minutes per game.

So there’s a lot of new to the Bulldogs this year, but that’s alright. Just ask Thiesen.

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“We’re a little bit younger, especially experience-wise,” Thiesen said. “It’s been exciting just figuring out our identity as a team. We’re learning how to work together, on the floor, offensively and defensively. Our strengths now are different than they were in the past, so it’s been exciting trying to figure out what those are and how we can use them to our advantage.”

Saints hope to see improvement

St. Scholastica’s second-year head coach Jason Schmitz hopes to build on last season, but it won’t be easy playing in the competitive Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.

The Saints are coming off a 3-22 season and 3-19 mark in the MIAC. This year they’re off to an 0-3 start after dropping their MIAC opener 77-48 to Concordia-Moorhead Saturday at Reif Gymnasium in Duluth (yes, the MIAC plays a lot of games).

“All in all, things are going well,” Schmitz said. “We’ve struggled with some injury issues early that have zapped a lot of our depth but are slowly working back to health. We finally had a full squad for a couple of days in practice this past week which is the first time since the first week of the season.”

The Saints have a relatively new roster with four newcomers. All of them see significant minutes and three are already starting, joining returning starters Miranda Broberg and Megan Hurley.

Broberg, a Wisconsin-Superior transfer, was the lone CSS player to average in double figures last year at 14.5 points per game. She earned All-MIAC honorable mention honors. Hurley, meanwhile, is an unsung player who does the little things that don’t always show up in a box score.

Joining them in the starting five is Katie Vaske, a Hamline transfer, and first-year players Jackie Johnson (Bemidji, Minn.) and Lexi Imdeike (Andover, Minn.).

Other key returners include senior Eve Turner, a former Hibbing High School product, and juniors Ashley Faur and Proctor’s Liz Frase.

“I honestly have no idea where we will wind up in the standings this year but I do know we will get better every day and define the pillars of our program this year,” Schmitz said. “We are emphasizing standard-based improvement over measurable goals this year. We don’t want a loss to define us and rather focus on things we can control every day.

“Basketball is an interesting sport in that many times it comes down to make or miss. If we focus on us, we will continue to get better and see where we’re at when February hits.”

Schmitz is assisted by Jill Hendrickson and Dyami Starks, a Duluth East grad and former standout at NCAA Division I Bryant University of Rhode Island. Dyami runs the Starks Academy in Duluth.

“Working with Dyami has been great,” Schmitz said. “I was fortunate to coach both the U-15 and U-17 Starks Academy teams with him this past spring and summer and it was a natural fit to continue the work of growing basketball in the Duluth area. We want to make both Starks Academy and CSS a destination spot. He and Jill bring tremendous energy and knowledge.”

Carpenter leads Yellowjackets

Wisconsin-Superior has an interim new coach in Emily Carpenter, a former UWS player.

Carpenter didn’t get hired until August and is only two years removed from playing for the Yellowjackets. Carpenter played with the seniors on this year’s team.

The Yellowjackets are picked to finish sixth in the UMAC after going 6-19 overall and 5-9 in conference play. They’re off to a 2-1 start.

UWS played 13th-ranked Simpson Saturday in Indianola, Iowa, hanging tough before ultimately falling 77-70, showing reasons for optimism.

The Yellowjackets have a small recruiting class with just three newcomers. Top returners include guards Kaelyn Christian, Mady Sanders and Proctor’s Sam Parendo and forward Bryton Kukowski, a Hermantown High School grad.

Kukowski, who also plays softball, is one of a handful of multisport athletes on the team, including Lindrey Schendel (soccer), Brynne Crystal (soccer) and Ely’s Erika Mattson (softball).

UWS will play former WIAC foes Wisconsin-La Crosse and Wisconsin-Platteville in the La Crosse Thanksgiving Classic. The Yellowjackets will play NCAA Division I North Dakota in Grand Forks Dec. 2 and open UMAC play Dec. 9 against Bethany Lutheran in Mankato, Minnesota.

UWS will host the Superior Shootout Classic Dec. 30-31, with the Yellowjackets' first game against St. Catherine, which is coached by former UWS coach Don Mulhern. It will be the first time the teams have played each other since Mulhern went to St. Kate’s before the 2016-17 season.

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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