Kelsea Hurley

Guard Kelsea Hurley is a two-time all-conference player

PELLA — Many of the faces are new but the resurgent Central College women’s basketball team expects to continue its steady climb in 2021-22.

Just one starter returns from last year’s squad which, despite a pandemic-shortened schedule, continued to move the program forward, finishing 6-4 and reaching the American Rivers tournament semifinals for the first time since 2000-01. It was Central’s second straight league tourney berth after missing the field for 13 years.

Even with some roster losses, coach Joe Steinkamp has many reasons for optimism as he launches his fifth year at the helm. Those begin with the lone returning starter, 5-foot-11 wing Kelsea Hurley (Scottsdale, Ariz., Desert Mountain HS), a two-time all-conference pick. She received first-team distinction last year after averaging a team-high 14.3 points with 23 3-point goals in 10 games.

Only three other letterwinners are back but, bolstered by an exceptional freshman class, Steinkamp envisions an exciting lineup.

“We really like the versatility of the group,” he said. “We think the pieces fit well together. We have a good mix of passing and shooting, mixed in with some really high-level defensive players.”

Steinkamp’s goal of a position-less roster, with a wealth of athletic players who can shoot and handle the ball but also defend multiple spots on the floor, is moving closer to reality.

“This is probably the best passing and shooting team that we’ve had,” he said. “We have a lot of high-level 3-point shooters.

“We think we have the ability to play every style and I think that’s what good teams can do. We can play fast in transition but we also feel like we can grind it out and play good offense and defense in the half court.”

It takes more than shooters to be successful.

“We think we’ll be good on offense but we’ve got to stay committed on the defensive end,” Steinkamp said. “Great championship teams are really good at both ends of the court.”

Forwards

Hurley is joined by sophomore Kassidi Steel (New Sharon, North Mahaska HS), who appeared off the bench in all 10 games as a rookie and is ready to take on a larger role.

“We think we have two of the best-shooting forwards in the conference in Kelsea Hurley and Kassidi Steel,” Steinkamp said. “Kelsea is coming off two years as an all-conference player and works extremely hard in the summer and offseason. She’s improved her shooting and ball-handling and she’s also in great shape. She can score in every way on the court and we’re going to use all of her skills on the offensive and defensive end.”

Steel also fits the mold for the style of player Steinkamp likes.

“Kassidi didn’t play huge amounts as a freshman but we’re expecting big things from her this season,” he said. “She worked extremely hard in the off-season and is in great shape. She’s a very good shooter and passer and is a versatile defender. She can play all five positions and guard all positions.”

Guards

Junior Danae Greig (Albany, Ore., West Albany HS), at 5-6, has the most varsity experience in the back court. A two-time letterwinner, she appeared in a limited role off the bench last year, but should see increased minutes along with another junior, 5-5 Jessica Carithers (Mackinaw, Ill., Deer Creek-Mackinaw HS).

“Both give us really good athleticism and defense,” Steinkamp said. “We like their speed and how they fit into our up-tempo system.”

Seniors Emma Wright (Eau Claire, Wis., Memorial HS) and Hannah Wright (Eau Claire, Wis., Memorial HS), both 5-6, have seen most of their action on the junior varsity, but could contribute.

“They’re two good shooting guards who can help us with additional 3-point shooting,” Steinkamp said.

But he also has high hopes for 5-4 freshman Hannah Dau (Paullina, South O’Brien), a prolific high school scorer and talented ballhandler.

“She’s a really good passer, shooter, scorer,” Steinkamp said. “She’s really good at making other people better. She can do everything with the ball in her hands.”

Equally promising is 5-8 freshman combo guard Alayna Akiona (Honolulu, Hawaii, Kalani), a long-distance recruit that Steinkamp likely regrets not seeing on an extended home visit. Her final high school season was canceled last year due to the pandemic but she appears game-ready.

“Alayna can play both the point and shooting guard positions,” Steinkamp said. “She’s a great 3-point shooter but also has great vision and feel for the game.”

Another freshman guard, 5-9 Payton Kizer (Zwingle, Dubuque Senior HS), will likely force her way into the picture as well.

“She’s an athletic wing,” Steinkamp said. “She’s a very good defensive player and a good athlete.”

Posts

Central lacks experience inside but not potential. Returnees include 5-10 junior Annie Swaters (Deepwater, Mo., Lakeland HS) and 5-11 junior Rebekah Cashen (Spokane, Wash., Christian Center HS).

“Annie Swaters is really playing well right now,” Steinkamp said. “She has good offensive feel, good hands and great post moves. And Rebekah Cashen is athletic center who runs the floor really well.”

Alaina Applegate (sophomore, Leon, Central Decatur HS) flashed promise in lettering as a freshman but is sidelined by injury, so her season start is delayed.

“She’ll give us a great defensive presence at the five position when she returns,” Steinkamp said.

But another freshman figures in prominently in the post as well in 6-3 Allison Van Gorp (Pella, Pella Christian HS).

“Allison has done a really good job in the preseason,” Steinkamp said. “She’s got great hands, great touch around the rim. And she’s already proving to us that she’s going to be a great rebounder.”

While building on last year’s success, this season’s squad has a different look.

“We’re more perimeter-oriented,” Steinkamp said. “Last year we played most of the time with two traditional post players. This year we’ll play with kind of four guards and a center.”

Sorting it all out is job one early in the year.

“We’ll have to continue to find out what are best combinations are with so many new people in our varsity lineup,” Steinkamp said. “That will kind of be the main goal of the next month. But there’s a lot to work with and we think we’ll figure it out.”

Depth could be an issue if more injuries hit. Much depends on how much the Dutch can lean on the freshmen. Early indications are favorable.

“It’s a strong recruiting class,” Steinkamp said. “They’ve picked things up really quickly. So we’re really excited to see what they can do. I think it’s really helped that we’ve had great leadership in the fall and the preseason from our captains. Kelsea Hurley and Kassidi Steel have done an unbelievable job of leading our team. I feel strongly about our team morale and team culture.”

The schedule

The Division III season start date was moved up, with the Dutch tipping off at home against Emmaus College Nov. 6. The non-conference slate is highlighted by a trip to the Hope College (Mich.) RDV Tournament in Orlando, Florida Dec. 29-30.

“We like our schedule,” Steinkamp said. “We’ll be challenged with some good teams. We have CCIW power Augustana (Ill.) (Nov. 12) and then we play Hope College in Florida, the number-one ranked team in the country.”

The Dutch continued their rise in the league standings last year, tying for fourth after a ninth-place finish in Steinkamp’s first season, 2017-18. But the upward path becomes more daunting now, particularly with several league players taking advantage of the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA after last year’s compromised season. Defending champion Simpson College returns all five starters and is ranked No. 6 in the D3hoops.com preseason poll while Wartburg College is rated No. 10. Coe College and Loras College are expected to be near the top of the league as well.

“We have a young team but a very talented team that we’re excited about and we think can keep elevating in the league,” Steinkamp said.

But there’s work ahead.

“We have to continue with the process, continue to believe in each other and work hard,” Steinkamp said. “We think we have people at every position who can help us win.”

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