Is it possible to be so accustomed to excellence that it becomes boring and mundane to witness?
Fans of the Northwestern women’s basketball team would certainly know as the 2012-2013 season begins with the Raiders as three-time defending national champions.
In fact, no returning member of the team knows what it is like to not win the last game of the season.
The success of the program is a testament to the continual development of the recruited talent. That development will be tested this year as the Raiders, who were the No. 2 team in the preseason polls, will be missing some familiar faces.
There are voids to be filled from the graduation of three starters: post and defensive specialist Mel Babcock, shooter Val Kleinjan and catalyst scorer Kami Kuhlmann. Head coach Chris Yaw is not ignorant of the impact of their absences but is not looking for replacements.
“There’s a phrase about ‘how do you replace a player,’ and you don’t,” Yaw said. “I don’t think it’s a fair statement to those who have left and those still playing — to try and mold them into what someone else was. There are gaps and voids when people graduate, but we try to develop as people and as a team, and we all will absorb the gaps. We don’t insert someone into a mold.”
Yaw certainly is not working with an empty cupboard. Senior forward Kendra De Jong returns for her fourth year as a starter. She is a two-time NAIA All-American and is the reigning GPAC Player of the Year after averaging 18.6 points and 9.2 rebounds.
Junior forwards Sam Kleinsasser and Alli Dunkelberger have each earned starts in previous years and will provide height and scoring ability from all parts of the floor.
Sophomore guard Karen Hutson provides a dynamic and slashing scoring threat, and junior guard Kenzie Small will look to bring defensive intensity.
Senior guard Mal Cunard shot 44 percent from behind the arc last season and gives Yaw a veteran scoring threat off the bench.
Running the point to begin the year will be sophomore Paige O’Neal, who was sidelined for the majority of last year’s campaign. Freshman guard Cassidy Breon has also seen significant minutes in the early part of the season.
“The biggest thing right now is learning how to play together as a team and being able to trust each other,” Cunard said. “We have talent, it’s just a matter of using it together. Instead of having one go-to scorer, it’s going to be more spread out.”
The chemistry NW hopes to build will not come overnight, and the team’s mentality is to try to improve in some way each day, whether at practice or in games.
“We want to become as good as we can possibly become, and we do that one day at a time,” Yaw said. “We aren’t trying to meet anyone else’s expectations.”
Everyone else’s expectations are running high all around the GPAC. No. 1 Concordia, No. 5 Morningside, No. 8 Briar Cliff and No. 18 Hastings all received recognition in the preseason poll, which means there will be no easy road for NW to reclaim the GPAC crown. (Despite the NAIA title, NW finished third in the GPAC last season.)
Such stiff competition is seen as a opportunity by Yaw to improve in the day-by-day fashion he and the coaching staff emphasize.
“It’s a high-caliber of play [in conference],” Yaw said. “Not only are they quality teams, but they’re quality in different ways. By the national tournament, GPAC teams have faced a lot of different styles of basketball. That’s why GPAC schools have had success at the national tournament.”
As for the talk of a four-peat, Cunard and the squad understand the temptation to focus on past accolades. However, they won’t dwell on what they have earned in the past.
“What we did last year doesn’t matter,” Cunard said. “It’s really important to remember this is a new season. No one is going to hand us the game because we were champs. If anything, it’s going to make it tougher with the target everyone has on our back.”