STORY BY AUSTIN CANNON
The Bulldogs were a very good team in 2014-15. They scored the most points in the conference and won 20 games for the first time in seven years.
Becoming a great team is the next objective.
The Bulldogs ran roughshod over Missouri Valley Conference foes on their way to a 15-3 conference record — winning nine games to start the conference season — but finished second in the MVC after late-season road losses to first-place Wichita State and Missouri State.
Drake won the final two games of the regular season, but fell to seventh-seed Evansville in the first round of the MVC tournament. Eastern Michigan awaited Drake in the WNIT where the Eagles outlasted the Bulldogs, 80-70; a sour ending to the Bulldogs’ most successful season since 2008.
“We don’t know how to win at the end, OK, but we’re going to have to figure it out,” head coach Jennie Baranczyk said at the Bulldogs’ annual media day Oct. 15. “That was a hard weekend for us. It really was, but that also has drive us into our postseason and our preseason and now the beginning of this season.”
Repeating or exceeding last season’s success could be difficult. Senior leaders Liza Heap and Carly Grenfell both graduated.Center Becca Jonas, who along with Maddy Dean gave Drake the inside presence it had lacked in years prior, will miss the entire season after surgery on her left knee to repair a microfracture.
“With her not being here we have to adjust a little bit, but Jennie has a solid system so it helps,” Dean said.
In order to adjust, the Bulldogs might feature smaller lineups, but for the moment it looks like senior Emma Donahue will take Jonas’s spot in the starting lineup. The 6-foot-3 senior appeared in 22 games in 2014-15, averaging 1.4 points and one rebound per contest.
“Emma Donahue is really going to have an opportunity to really step up and be called upon,” Baranczyk said.
The absence of Heap and Jonas force adaptation, but three of Barancyzk’s starters will return with their offensive firepower in tow.
Lizzy Wendell (21.8 points per game), Dean (13.6) and Caitlin Ingle (11.5) all earned postseason All-MVC recognition last year and will play more of a leadership role this season.
“As a junior, it’s time to step up,” Ingle said. “It’s time to take that leadership role. Me and Lizzy are really taking that on.”
Wendell’s leadership and talent have garnered additional recognition. She was named 2014-2015’s MVC Player of the Year and was elected to the All-MVC Preseason Team last week.
“We got shown the leadership our last two years, so this year we’re trying just trying to incorporate talking and just showing them how to do everything,” Wendell said.
If the usual offseason changes weren’t enough, the NCAA playing rules panel approved rule changes in June that will go into effect this season. Instead of two 20-minute halves there will now be four 10-minute quarters, replicating the structure of WNBA games.
“I think the biggest thing is that there might be times where we have to go eight minutes without a timeout called, which is very different from last year when there was a media (timeout) every four (minutes) no matter what,” Ingle said, “and so just having depth, which we have, is something that’s going to be on our side.”
Four freshmen will replace the four seniors who graduated last season. Forwards Sarah Rhine and Madelyne Johnson will help Donahue fill in for Jonas while guards Nicole Miller and Sammie Bachrodt will settle in the perimeter off the bench.
Miller, who won the Iowa Miss Basketball award in 2015, will likely not spend extended time on the sideline.
“She’s going to have to play,” Baranczyk said. “She’s going to have to play through some things, and we’re excited about that … She’s a winner.”
The new rules affect fouls, too. They will reset after every quarter, and teams will enter the bonus and shoot two free throws after the opposition’s fifth foul.
As it did last season, Drake will play a tough non-conference schedule. The Bulldogs open the season with Iowa State on Nov. 15 at the Knapp Center and will also host former MVC rival Creighton on Nov. 24.
On the road, Drake travels to the Big Ten’s Wisconsin and Iowa. Drake will also play in the Lady Rebel Round-Up in Las Vegas Nov. 28-29.
Even with the difficult schedule, Drake is expected to thrive in 2015-2016. The Bulldogs were ranked second in the MVC Preseason Poll, just behind Missouri State and above last year’s conference champion Wichita State.
“We need to bring it every practice,” Dean said, “and if we bring it to every practice, we’ll be ready for out game.”