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Women’s basketball earns conference title

Seniors+MacKenzie+Cook%2C+Sydney+Buchel+and+Kelsey+Larson+were+honored+before+the+women%27s+basketball+game+against+Grand+View+University+on+Feb.+25.+The+Wildcats+defeated+the+Vikings+77-59.+Photo+by+Elizabeth+Hanson.
Seniors MacKenzie Cook, Sydney Buchel and Kelsey Larson were honored before the women's basketball game against Grand View University on Feb. 25. The Wildcats defeated the Vikings 77-59. Photo by Elizabeth Hanson.

Seniors MacKenzie Cook, Sydney Buchel and Kelsey Larson were honored before the women's basketball game against Grand View University on Feb. 25. The Wildcats defeated the Vikings 77-59. Photo by Elizabeth Hanson.

Elizabeth Hanson

Elizabeth Hanson

Seniors MacKenzie Cook, Sydney Buchel and Kelsey Larson were honored before the women's basketball game against Grand View University on Feb. 25. The Wildcats defeated the Vikings 77-59. Photo by Elizabeth Hanson.

Story by Chad Mullen, Writer

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Even though the Baker women’s basketball team finished as the NAIA national runner-up in 2016, junior Sydnie Hanson and the Wildcats felt like they came away empty-handed.

“Last year we accomplished a lot but didn’t get any banners, since we didn’t win conference or nationals,” she said.

As 2017 Heart of America Athletic Conference Champions of the regular season, the No. 8 Wildcats feel a sense of accomplishment that evaded them in their wildly successful 2016.

“It feels good to have accomplished one of our goals and have something to show for it,” Hanson said.

Their regular-season success came after being ranked in the preseason as the third-best team in the conference, behind defending national champion MidAmerica Nazarene University and Central Methodist University, and 13th in the preseason top 25 poll. Hanson, along with the rest of the Wildcats, viewed the predictions as an insult.

“We didn’t think we should have been ranked so low, and it gave us motivation,” she said. “Coach (Ben Lister) said that we were better than everyone said, and better than everyone in the conference. We just had to go out and prove it.”

They proved it with a 26-4 overall record, and a 24-2 conference record, both best in the Heart. They improved upon last season’s 20-7 regular season record despite losing their top four scorers, three of them graduating seniors, and another, junior Caitlin Modesett, to injury after Nov. 22.

“We lost a lot of leadership and experience from last year, but our three seniors this year, Kelsey Larson, Mackenzie Cook and Sydney Buchel, definitely stepped up,” Hanson said. “They were the ones that got us through the tough games, all the games where we didn’t play as well, so they really led us to where we are now.”

All three seniors and sophomore Jessica Zweifel made all-conference teams in 2017, with Larsen being named Heart Player of the Year. The individual awards did not end with the players, as Lister won Heart Coach of the Year as well. Hanson credits the team’s success to a quickly developed chemistry on the court, which has only improved as the season has progressed. The Wildcats are currently on a 13-game winning streak.

“We jelled pretty well, our chemistry is great, and we know each other’s tendencies,” she said.

The Wildcats ranked top seven in the NAIA in statistical categories offensively and defensively, including blocked shots, field goal and 3-point field goal percentage, and defensive rebounding. What gives the Wildcats an advantage on offense is each player’s ability to get hot at any given night, as eight different Wildcats had games of at least 18 points this season.

“If there are a few of us struggling to score, one person can have a big impact and keep us in the game,” Hanson said. “Our depth is what sets us apart.”

At the other end of the court, Hanson said that Lister preaches work ethic as the key to defensive success.

“Defensively, our main focus is to get stops, and coach makes it known that defense wins games,” she said. “That’s what we work on the most.”

Leading the charge on the interior of the Wildcat defense is Buchel, who averaged 2.0 blocks per game, ninth-best in the NAIA. Junior Courtney Hoag comes off the bench to add 1.3 blocks per game of her own, giving the Wildcats at least one rim protector on the court for the entire game.

“Sydney is our best shot blocker. It’s so hard to play against her because her arms are so long,” Hanson said. “In practice, there are times I think I have an easy layup, but she comes out of nowhere and stuffs it. That’s a huge advantage for us, because our opponents have trouble getting in the lane.”

The Wildcats are looking to extend their 13-game winning streak into the postseason, starting with the Heart tournament, but more importantly, heading into the NAIA national tournament in search of a banner to hang from the rafters of the Collins Center.

“This year, I think we can do really well in nationals,” Hanson said. “I honestly believe we are just as good, if not better than we were last year, and we’re better than any team we play. It’s just a matter of remembering that ourselves as we head into these games.”

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