SIOUX CITY | The Morningside women’s basketball team won 24 games a season ago and qualified for the national tournament for the 15th consecutive year. Still, there was one message that was made clear at Monday's media day –- this team doesn’t want a repeat of last season.
For a program that has won four national titles under the direction of head coach Jamie Sale, a third-place finish in the GPAC and a second-round exit from the national tournament is not something it wants to see again.
“I think communication is what we lacked last year,” said senior Madison Braun, a graduate of O’Neill St. Mary’s (Neb.). “I can speak for that as well because I was a captain last year too and I don’t think our chemistry within the captain group was as strong as it needed to be.
“This group seems to have more team bonding and our relationship is a lot different than I have seen in the past. My first couple of years I saw it a little bit, but last year we all know our team chemistry is not as good as it should have been and that is probably the reason we didn’t meet our expectations at all.”
Braun is one of four seniors returning for her final season after leading the team in scoring at 15.9 points as well as steals (116) and finishing second in assists (71). Her smooth shooting stroke also has her 66 3-pointers shy of breaking the school record of 217 held by Megan Cloud.
Six-foot Lauren Lehmkuhl led the Mustangs in rebounds last season at 7.8 while pouring in 13.2 points per game. Heelan grad Jenna Bork is back after hitting 30 3s last season and Rachelle Housch started 14 games a year ago.
“Maddie is one of the best players in the country we think, Lauren is a great scorer and Jenna Bork and Rachelle have a lot of experience and are very good leaders,” Sale said.
They will be tasked with helping replace Lexi Ackerman, a third-team All-American – who has graduated.
Bork knows that seasons change but expectations don’t at Morningside.
“We are just going out there and proving we are Morningside and we have that target on our back and we want to get back to that championship game again,” said Bork, who was part of the 2015 national title squad. “We lost a lot of people from last year … but we are trying to build up our new freshmen.”
Sale has not had many seasons like the 2016-17 one.
“The season ended not how we wanted it to and I think the whole season in general we were a little inconsistent,” said Sale, who has amassed a 444-116 record in his 16 years at the school. “We really worked hard in the offseason trying to add some players that would help us improve. Our practices have really gotten off to a good start so we are hoping we can improve a lot from last year and just improve our consistency. I think we are off to a good start.”
Sale said his focus was on athleticism with his most recent recruiting class giving him one of the quickest teams he has had. It is a squad with 11 freshmen and one he hopes will fare far better at a certain end of the court.
“The whole year defensively we really struggled,” said Sale, whose team is coming off a 24-9 season. “We were at the top of the conference in scoring but the bottom defensively, and it is the probably the worst we have ever done defensively.
“Hopefully we can force some turnovers and turn those into some easy baskets. We have a lot of players that can shoot and run the floor. Last year I thought we were a little more half court and didn’t get as many easy baskets and we are trying to change that.”
Sale pointed to five or six freshmen that could see significant time for the Mustangs this season. Sierra Mitchell averaged better than 18 points a game for Southeast Polk last season hitting 88 3-pointers, Faith and Grace Meyer were key members of Pocahontas’ 3A state championship squad, Mady Maly helped Wahoo Bishop Neuman to the Nebraska state semifinals, Tayte Hansen of York, Nebraska brings versatility and South Sioux’s Carissa Powell averaged 12 points for the state champion Cardinals.
“Our press will be better this year because this new group just works hard,” Braun said.
One big addition to the roster is Kailey Burke who averaged 14.1 points and 5.4 rebounds for Briar Cliff last season. Burke, a sophomore from Hinton, has to sit out this season after transferring.
The Mustangs begin their season Oct. 27 at Point Lookout, Missouri against College of the Ozarks, the team that eliminated Morningside from the national tournament last season.
“We played them earlier in the season and probably played one of our better games last year, and then we get to the national tournament and I think we did more of the overlooking,” Braun said. “We are just looking for revenge because they are a good team, they are always a good team.”