After a series of close losses, women's basketball (4-5) is looking towards tomorrow's conference opener at 3rd-ranked Washington University for a boost in confidence and recognition.
"Washington is a perennial power in the UAA. They won the league last year, and they have restocked their team. If we beat them, we'll really send a shock wave through the conference. It'll be a real dogfight. I'm very interested to see where it ends up," said head coach Jennifer Kroll.
Second-year forward Susan Gutowski agreed.
"The game will be a tough battle, but they're not invincible. We're incredibly underestimated in the UAA, and I think that will work to our advantage. We're going to surprise a lot of teams."
Rochester, ranked 2nd, and New York University, ranked 19th, are also likely to contend for top honors in the UAA, historically one of the tougher conferences in Division III.
"We're going to be aiming for the top spot. Due to the strength of the conference, a 2nd- or 3rd-place finish might be good enough to satisfy our ultimate goala berth in the NCAA tournamentbut first place carries an automatic bid," Kroll said. "It's been frustrating, but our long-term goals haven't changed. We expected to be in close games; now we're just looking to learn how to finish them."
The past weeks have been marked by tough defeats for the Maroons. On December 6 and 7 the team dropped games to Hendrix College, 68-64, and Rhodes College, 76-73 at the Webster Tournament in St. Louis. The team was within two baskets of an undefeated Hendrix team during the closing minutes of the game and blew a double-digit halftime lead against Rhodes, falling on a last second three-pointer by bench player Rene Orth.
Chicago also lost to Kalamazoo College 68-56 and Lake Forest College 60-48 in other non-conference action.
The Maroons also led by as many as nine points against Kalamazoo and played very competitively against a tournament-quality Lake Forest squad.
"We weren't in as many close games last year. Losing takes a toll, but it's heartening that we're in them until the end," Kroll said. "We've got young players, and we're going to be looking to work on the fundamentals to close out those sorts of games."
According to Kroll the Maroons have made significant improvements in their post play, and fourth-year Angel Korer and Gutowski have been more physical, drawing contact and getting to the foul line.
"We're a really talented team, and our confidence level has not been rocked by these close losses," Gutowski added. "We feel like we play like an 9-0 team, and we're ready to show the rest of the UAA how good we really are."
The Maroons also defeated Northland College 58-53 just before winter break.
In an attempt both to shake up the team and train players to be ready to play at any time, Kroll has elected to rotate her starting lineup each game.
"There has been some inconsistency in who is stepping up, but there always seems to be someone, leaving those positions up for grabs. If the starters know they could lose that spot, and the bench players know they have something to gain, everyone works much harder in practice, competing with and pushing each other. Nothing is settled, so everyone is improving," Kroll said.
"The team was a little shaken up by the changing starting line-up, but Coach Kroll talked to us about it and made it clear that we weren't losing our spots because we weren't playing well, but that she was trying to find different combinations and give people a chance who had been proving themselves in practice," Gutowski said. "She wanted us fighting for spots, not just everyone assuming a role and being comfortable with it."