PELLA — A delayed and shortened season won’t prevent the Central College women’s basketball program from making another huge leap forward, according to coach Joe Steinkamp.
A steady climb in Steinkamp’s first three seasons should continue, accelerated by the return of nine of the team’s top 10 scorers, including four starters, and the arrival of additional promising freshmen and transfers that have the team increasingly taking on the look of a contender.
The style of play is evolving as well. The Dutch must replace their force in the middle, graduated center Kendall Brown, who departed with the school’s season and career field goal percentage and blocked shots records, and will do so by transitioning to what Steinkamp terms a more position-less lineup.
“We will look completely different on offense,” he said. “There will be a lot more movement, a lot more trying to take advantage of different matchups. We have a lot of people who can do different things. Defensively, we’ll be different, too. Last year we really funneled everything to Kendall and let her block shots and do her thing. But just like on the offensive side, we have more versatility so we can pressure the ball more and switch some stuff because we have a lot of people who can guard multiple positions.”
Glimpses of the vision Steinkamp has for the Dutch became increasingly evident last year in a turnaround 15-11 campaign that ended with the team’s first conference tournament appearance since 2004-05, its most league wins since 2001-02 and its most season wins since 1997-98.
Despite not starting 5-on-5 work until just prior to Christmas due to the college’s COVID-19 restrictions, Steinkamp is seeing continued progress.
“I’ve been really impressed with our team, just the leadership across the board,” he said. “The players work extremely hard and made the best out of the situation. We’ve done a great job in the weight room with what our strength and conditioning staff with Kyle Johnson has been able to do and our players have done a great job of getting extra conditioning in on their own. I don’t think we’ve ever had a season where we’ve had more players come in and get shots up on their own. So I think we’re doing everything we can.”
Central made a late-season surge to make the conference tournament before nearly pulling off a first-round tourney road upset at Luther College. The energy that generated is propelling the team through the layoff.
“We’re just excited to be able to compete,” Steinkamp said. “I think last year we ended on such a high note, winning three of our last four games and making the conference tournament. We’re just riding the momentum of last year’s success and there’s a lot of excitement in the program right now.”
While not a natural point guard, 5-foot, 9-inch Emily Hay (senior, Lowden, North Cedar HS) shouldered the role capably last year. A two-time team co-captain, Hay averaged 5.9 points and 2.0 assists, with 2.5 steals while hitting 45 3-point goals.
“She’s a really good defensive player and we like her shooting ability,” Steinkamp said. “I think with the team we have this year she won’t have to play as much point guard as she did last year. We’ll be able to move her off the ball and get her to play to her strengths as a 3-point shooter.”
At 5-6, Danae Greig (sophomore, Albany, Ore., West Albany HS) took on an increasing role as the season progressed, appearing in 17 games.
“Danae played really well at the end of last season and is showing signs of improvement,” Steinkamp said. “She has a high basketball IQ and is a really hard worker.”
Cynthia Rangel (San Antonio, Texas, William J. Brennan HS), a 5-5 senior, has returned to the team and has point guard experience as well.
“Cynthia also has a high basketball IQ and is a really good passer,” Steinkamp said.
But he’s also expecting an impact from new players.
“We have a few newcomers that we’re really excited about,” Steinkamp said. “They bring a different dimension to that position.”
With Central’s emerging position-less style, Steinkamp sees some interchangeable parts in the off guard and forward positions. The face of that transition are sophomores Kelsea Hurley (Scottsdale, Ariz., Desert Mountain HS) and Carson Fisk (Searsboro, Lynnville-Sully HS), who bring size and athleticism to the wings.
Hurley, at 5-11, burst into the spotlight as the team’s leading scorer as a freshman, averaging 13.8 points with 4.6 rebounds and 3.0 assists. She hit a team-high 58 3-point goals, hitting a respectable 38.4% from long range. Hurley also led the Dutch with an 82.1 free throw percentage. She received second-team all-conference honors.
“She can score in a variety of ways,” Steinkamp said. “She’s a great 3-point shooter but she can also get to the rim.”
Fisk, at 5-10, eventually grabbed a starting spot as well. She averaged 8.8 points with 2.7 assists.
“Carson has really gotten a lot stronger,” Steinkamp said. “She’s added a post game to her drive game.
“They both had fantastic freshman years. We’re expecting big things out of those two and we’ll really use their versatility. They both have added things to their game and we’re really excited for them to take big leaps in their second year.”
The Dutch actually have an additional returning starter in Jenna Clark (junior, Story City, Roland-Story HS) who led the team in scoring as a freshman with 10.9 points a game before suffering a season-ending injury in the team’s opening game last year.
“It will be good to get Jenna back up into the rotation,” Steinkamp said. “She’s one of the leaders on our team, just a really positive, upbeat person and it’s been great to have her back at our workouts.”
There is also new talent on the wings that will force Steinkamp into some lineup decisions.
Central’s fourth returning starter is 5-10 junior Maci Gambell (Hedrick, Pekin HS). She averaged 9.7 points and 5.4 rebounds last season while serving as a team co-captain.
“She started at the four (power forward) position last year but can also play guard with her 3-point shooting and scoring ability,” Steinkamp said. “That’s something we relied on a lot last year and we think she’ll keep improving even more.”
While 6-0 Payton Rogers (senior, Moravia) wasn’t a starter last year, she played starter’s minutes, particularly late in the year when the Dutch relied on her for energy off the bench. She averaged 6.3 points and 5.3 rebounds and posted three double-doubles, including a 20-point, 11-rebound effort Feb. 5 against the University of Dubuque. She received the team’s Most Improved Player Award.
“Payton ended the season on a really positive note,” Steinkamp said. “Her style really fits how we want to play, with the speed of our team. She runs the floor so hard. We’re expecting big things from her and know she’s up for the challenge.
Sami Craig (Altoona, Southeast Polk HS), a 5-10 senior, also provided inside minutes off the bench, averaging 2.5 points in 24 games.
“Sami has looked really good in early workouts,” Steinkamp said. “Her post moves look really good right now. We think she’s playing the best basketball of her life.”
At only 5-9, Amanda Smith (sophomore, Tipton) displayed versatility inside and outside in 12 games as a freshman.
“Amanda has really impressed us,” Steinkamp said. “We really like the way she can drive the ball and she’s got great post moves.”
More depth comes from 6-0 junior Maddie Hartley (Clarinda), who appeared in 19 games.
“She’s a post we really like,” Steinkamp said. “She can step out and shoot the three.”
Steinkamp also expects to get some freshmen help inside.
“We have some newcomers who give us a different dimension,” he said.
Newcomers throughout the lineup create some vexing lineup decisions.
“I think competition is good,” Steinkamp said. “That’s what good teams have, a lot of kids that can play, a lot of different lineups we can put on the floor. We’re really excited about some of the possibilities.”
Steinkamp also is seeing benefits from having a new varsity assistant coach in Kayla Engelhard, who gained NCAA Division III tourney experience as a player at Calvin University (Mich.) and as an assistant at Whitman College (Wash.).
“She’s been great,” Steinkamp said. “She brings a lot of new ideas and sees the game at a really high level. She brings a positive, upbeat attitude to our team.”
Central won’t have a non-conference season or even much of a preseason to help Steinkamp and his staff to sort things out. The eight-game schedule that finally launches Jan. 23 includes only American Rivers games and the Dutch need to be ready opening day.
“This year being different we could end up playing more kids,” Steinkamp said. “We feel like we have multiple options that we can go to but until we see it on the floor when they’re playing, it’s hard to predict.”
That adds to the challenge of continuing the team’s climb in a balanced and highly competitive conference. Central squeezed into sixth place in the league last year at 7-9 and while Steinkamp is confident, continuing that ascent will be difficult in a balanced conference that features a pair of NCAA Division III tourney contenders in Wartburg College and Loras College.
“The league is probably as good as it’s ever been,” Steinkamp said. “Wartburg and Loras return big parts of their national tournament teams. Just about every team has a lot of players back.”
Yet the Dutch are better equipped to take on the gauntlet the schedule presents.
“I think at the end of our season we gained a lot of confidence and that’s a big part of it,” Steinkamp said. “We believe we can beat good teams now and we’re excited for the challenge. We love that we play in such a great league and, yeah, we’re up for it.”
The league is abandoning the traditional women’s-men’s doubleheaders for the year, which will also see odd start times and only family members in the stands. Such is basketball in a pandemic, Steinkamp said.
“When you see games around the country right now, you go into a week thinking you might play and then something happens where you don’t,” he said. “You just have to be flexible and ready for anything and everything. We have to keep a positive mindset and control what we can control. We want to work hard every day to try to improve and be ready for competition when it happens.”
With at least 14 Division III leagues already shut down for the winter, the Dutch are grateful for whatever games they get.
“Our kids just want to play,” Steinkamp said. “We’re excited to be able to have a schedule.”
But even in the most unusual of years, the Dutch are determined to continue the program’s ascent back into contention. And they’re doing so with the kind of roster Steinkamp envisioned when he took the job.
“We have never had so much speed and skill and depth since I’ve been here,” he said. “We’re just really excited to get rolling.”