BY AUSTIN CANNON
After year four of the Jennie Baranczyk era, the Drake women’s basketball team has established itself as a Valley contender.
This season’s 23-10 record — the best under Baranczyk — marked the Bulldogs’ second straight 20-win season, a feat they have not accomplished since 2002. Drake also finished in second place in the Missouri Valley Conference in back-to-back seasons.
Individual accolades were in no short supply, either. Juniors Lizzy Wendell and Caitlin Ingle earned first-team All-MVC honors. Forward Sara Rhine was voted as both the conference freshman and sixth player of the year.
And while that’s all evidence of a successful season, the Bulldogs’ season still ended in disappointment.
“We just didn’t end quite like we wanted in the (MVC) tournament and then the WNIT,” Wendell said.
Drake’s two final losses of the season came at the hands of conference foes. In the MVC tournament semifinal against Missouri State — a team Drake beat twice during the regular season — the Bulldogs shot poorly (34 percent) and fell 65-61.
“It was just a really tough shooting game for us,” Ingle said. “Nobody was on.”
The Bulldogs then earned an at-large bid to the WNIT and hosted Sacred Heart at the Knapp Center for their first-round game. Drake cruised past the Pioneers 95-59 to set up a second-round matchup with Northern Iowa.
The Panthers were the only conference team Drake failed to beat during the regular season, and that trend continued when the MVC’s top two regular season teams met for the third time. The Bulldogs again struggled to shoot and Lizzy Wendell only played 20 minutes because of foul trouble, losing again to the Panthers, 64-58.
“They really wanted to beat us. They played their best games of the year,” Baranczyk said of UNI. “They were a senior class that hadn’t beat us much that really wanted to.”
Baranczyk cited the collective “target” on Drake’s back. After finishing second in the MVC the season before, the Bulldogs were ranked No. 2 in the MVC’s preseason poll. There was an expectation of success.
“We didn’t sneak up on anyone this year,” Baranczyk said.
An obvious reason for the Bulldogs’ success was the steady play of Wendell and Ingle. The juniors anchored the offense with Wendell scoring 19.6 points per game and Ingle dishing 6.9 assists per contest.
They were also the two most experienced players on a young team and mentored the trio of freshman: Rhine, Sammie Bachrodt and Nicole Miller. Each of them averaged more than 19 minutes this season, a hefty load for first-year players.
“That initial hurdle of just playing, game experience, is a big piece that we’ve had the opportunity to experience,” Rhine said.
Wendell said all three of them have come a long way since November.
“By the end of the season, we saw a lot different freshmen than we saw at the beginning of the year,” she said.
They’re a big part of Drake’s future, both immediate and long-term. With the return of center Becca Jonas next year, the Bulldogs will bring back a wealth of something they lacked this season: experience.
“When you start to look at all the building blocks that we’ve put it place, you’re starting to see something’s happening,” Baranczyk said.
Jonas, who Baranczyk said is on-schedule with her rehab from knee surgery, will fill the void left by the graduating Emma Donahue. Along with the incoming freshmen, Drake will have a deep bench a year after only dressing nine players.
It’s to the point that Ingle is ready to get back to practice only a week after the season ended.
“I’m just excited to start workouts already,” she said, laughing.
With the majority of this year’s team returning — and Jonas, who was a member of the all-freshman team in 2014-15 — Drake will again be expected to finish toward the top of the Valley, if not in the top spot itself.
“Naturally, people are going to know that we’re going to still be really good, so we’re still going to have a target on our back,” Ingle said. “That’s what makes it fun.