PELLA — The heightened energy and intensity are evident on the practice floor. First-year coach Moran Lonning is counting on the performance level of her Central College women’s basketball team rising as well.
It’s still a young squad that Lonning inherits from Joe Steinkamp, who made big strides as head coach for five seasons before taking over the men’s basketball program last spring. Steinkamp piloted the Dutch to the American Rivers Conference tournament semifinals for the first time in 20 years in 2021 before inexperience and injuries led to a 6-15 campaign last year with a 4-11 conference mark.
But Central has two all-conference players back among nine returning letterwinners, as well as some difference-making newcomers. Guard Kelsea Hurley (senior, Scottsdale, Ariz., Desert Mountain HS) is a three-time all-conference honoree, gaining first-team recognition in 2020-21 and second-team distinction in 2019-20 and last season, while center Allison Van Gorp (sophomore, Pella, Pella Christian HS) received second-team honors last year. They were also Central’s top two offensive threats as the squad returns seven of its top eight scorers. And despite getting a late recruiting start, Lonning landed three transfers expected to contribute.
Yet as the Dutch sprint towards the Nov. 8 season opener at Waldorf College, they face a steep learning curve. not only for the students but for the teacher, as Lonning embarks on her first year as a collegiate head coach.
“Everything’s new this year, for the players and for me,” she said.
Sophomore Hannah Dau (Paullina, South O’Brien HS) started 19 games at point guard as a rookie, averaging 4.2 points and 2.9 rebounds.
“It’s really tough to start and play point guard as a freshman in this league but it’s great she has that experience now,” Lonning said.
Senior Danae Greig (Albany, Ore.) was a regular at the point as well, starting nine games. She averaged 2.7 points with 1.5 assists but is a relentless defender and brings other traits Lonning values as well.
“Both Danae and Hannah have good speed,” Lonning said. “They have good handles. They want to make their teammates better and they’re coachable. I think all those qualities are huge for someone who is going to handle the ball a lot.
“Danae, as a senior, is a great leader as well. I think a lot of the players really look up to here so I’m hoping she can keep leading on and off the floor.”
Jessica Carithers (senior, Mackinaw, Ill., Deer Creek HS) appeared in 15 games last year but is competing on Central’s triathlon squad and so will report late as will Esther Hughes (freshman, Kalona, Hillcrest Academy), who is on the women’s soccer team.
A pair of freshmen, Jasmyn Williams (Denver, Colo., Arvada West HS) and Jadyn Filling (Ankeny) could help push the ball in Central’s up-tempo attack.
“I love the bounce in their step,” Lonning said. “They both just love being around people and love learning. I think they’re just trying to soak up everything right now.”
Sophomore NCAA Division II transfers Abby Johnson (Ankeny) and Samantha Scott (Davenport, North Scott HS) will give Central a boost as off guards but could also run the point if needed.
“I think they will be great either handling the ball a little bit or spotting up and shooting,” Lonning said.
At 5-foot, 11-inches, Johnson brings more length to the guard court, but she and Scott are also expected to add outside scoring.
“I think adding these two will help with the 3-point percentage for our team,” Lonning said. “I’ve known Sam and Abby, probably since their junior year in high school so I feel really good about them. They know what they’re getting with me and I know what I can expect out of them. They’re both positive, both competitive and I’m really excited for them to get on the court.”
Two other sophomore guards could give Central a boost, if healthy. Payton Kizer (Zwingle, Dubuque Senior HS), at 5-9, appeared in 12 games last year but is fighting off injuries.
“She’s a great athlete who I think, when healthy, could do really well in our press,” Lonning said.
Cally Gibbs (Grinnell, Lynnville-Sully HS), at 5-8, was sidelined last year.
“She worked hard this summer and has been really hungry and really excited,” Lonning said. “She’s competing hard in practice and wanting to keep learning. She’s got to be patient after a whole year off, but I think she’s on the right track. She can shoot it.”
Hurley, at 5-11 like Johnson, averaged 13.8 points and 5.6 rebounds along with 2.5 assists and was the team 3-point leader with 33. She can play inside or out, Lonning said, as can 5-10 wing Kassidi Steel (junior, New Sharon, North Mahaska HS), a lockdown defender who is all over the floor, averaging 7.4 points and 7.2 rebounds while leading the Dutch in assists (3.8) and steals (2.2). Hurley and Steel logged the most playing time on the team last year, averaging 32.3 and 31.2 minutes, respectively.
“I think Kelsea and Kassidi are the kind of players that can do it all,” Lonning said. “They’re super-talented. They not only accept being pushed, they’re wanting to be pushed, wanting to get better and realizing that adversity is good, struggle is good. They have stayed positive and continue to be two of the hardest workers, which is great because they’re also two of the leaders.”
Newcomers at forward include 5-9 freshman Erin Dederich (McLean, Ill., Olympia) and a pair of 5-9 freshmen from Shenandoah, Ava Wolf and Allie Eveland.
At 6-3, Van Gorp is among Central’s only true post players although Lonning has several other options and will need them in the early going as Van Gorp recovers from a preseason injury. Central’s second-leading scorer as a freshman, Van Gorp averaged 13.4 points and 9.1 rebounds, which ranked second in the conference. She shot a team-high 56.3% from the floor and blocked 33 shots. Lonning wants to expand her role.
“Allison was all-conference last year and I’m excited to see what she can do now as a sophomore after learning the league a little bit more,” Lonning said. “We hope to put in a few more ways for her to score involving more than just having her back to the basket.”
A 5-10 senior, Annie Swaters (Deepwater, Mo., Lakeland HS) came on strong down the stretch last year. She averaged 5.7 points in 17 games while averaging just 10.8 minutes a game.
“She’s excited for her senior season,” Lonning said. “I think she had a pretty good summer and is pretty motivated. She’s got a great midrange shot and I’m excited to find ways to keep bringing more and more out of her.”
A 5-10 sophomore, Kaylee Weber (Sigourney), is another option in the post as is 5-10 freshman Bailey Reding (Grundy Center).
Lonning isn’t hiding her team’s plan of attack.
“I want to full-court press the whole game,” she said. “That’s not a secret.”
Installing a new style isn’t seamless, however.
“Even if things are kind of ugly because we’re learning a new offense and defense, that’s ok,” Lonning said. “I’ve been telling them, I want it to be messy. I want to work through some of these things and fail in practice, so we know how to respond in a game, we know how to respond in practice the next day and we know how to get better.”
It’s a style that requires employing a deep bench.
“I think you have to,” Lonning said. “As a player, if you’re in the game, you have to be willing to empty your tank, knowing that someone else is coming in for you to take a break. I don’t want anyone holding back. I want you to go all out and trust that you have teammates that will do the same. So, yes, we should be able to play a lot more people if we’re willing to buy into that.”
A two-time conference MVP for a championship team at Luther College as well as an assistant coach for title winners the last two seasons at Simpson College, Lonning knows the American Rivers and what it takes to be successful. She sees the ingredients at Central.
“I’m really excited,” Lonning said. “I didn’t recruit these players, so I hadn’t gotten to see them play that much, only when I was scouting against them. But I think we have some really talented players who maybe just need a shift in their mindset, a little more confidence or maybe just some more reps.”
Lonning said Steinkamp did a good job of setting up the kind of non-conference schedule the team needs to prepare for league play. The Dutch open the season Nov. 8 at Waldorf College.
But Lonning also will enter conference action with her eyes open. Two conference squads earned NCAA tournament berths last year and talent is plentiful.
“There are a ton of returning players this year across the conference,” she said. “I think we have players that got really good conference experience. I think that will be huge for them to have played in all the gyms and know the intensity they’ll need and know the grind of playing everyone twice. I think that will help but I also think adding these newcomers, whether they’re transfers or freshmen, has given us a huge lift, not only talent-wise but mentality- and intensity-wise.”
Lonning has lofty goals for the Dutch program in the future that she wants to build a foundation for, but right now she’s not looking any further than the next practice.
“I really try to preach being in the moment,” she said. “If we can continue to reset our minds to be in the moment, that foundation should hopefully start building itself without us looking past today.”