Isabel Pheifer — Staff Writer
A season ago, the Dordt University Women’s Basketball team went on what some may call a Cinderella run. Going into the national tournament ranked 21st in the nation, according to the NAIA Women’s Basketball Coaches Poll, defeating the number one seed in the tournament, and finishing as the national runner-up sums up a successful post-season. Seven months later, the Defenders start a new season, ready to use their championship-level energy and grit once again.
A highly detail-oriented and determined team, the Defenders spent summer and preseason workouts getting both their bodies and minds ready for competition. As the women filed into the gym for the first practice of the season, Head Women’s Basketball Coach Bill Harmsen could tell his players had put in the work during the summer months.
“The summer work that our players put in was fantastic, and they worked hard coming back fit and healthy,” Harmsen said.
A typical preseason workout involves a variety of different activities, ranging from agility work, weightlifting, band work, and continuing to develop basketball skills. With each flex pushing one’s body up from a squat to each arm extended high following through after a shot, the off-season work is diligent and crucial.
“We realize there are going to be some expectations for us to compete well this season,’’ senior forward Karly Gustafson said. “I think our team has risen to that pressure and expectations by putting in lots of time in the gym through the off-season, so that we can compete at a high level again this year.”
After a second-place finish in the Great Plains Athletic Conference last year, the Defenders came in tabbed third in the preseason coaches’ poll for the 2022-23 season. Finishing with a 16-6 conference record and a 29-9 overall record last season, they now come in ranked only behind Morningside and Dakota Wesleyan, two teams the Defenders split games in regular season play.
A new season also means a semi-new roster. Graduating their top scorer, first team All- American and reigning GPAC Player of the Year Ashtyn Verbeek, and defensive phenom and crucial leader Mya Chmielewski leaves big shoes to fill for the Defenders this season.
“We are continuing to build a strong tradition of women’s basketball here at Dordt,” Harmsen said. “That means we have women willing to step in and fill the void.”
Despite the loss of two key players, the team returns four of its five top scorers. Gustafson comes in for her senior season averaging 12.6 points per game and snagging 8.0 rebounds a contest. Senior guard Bailey Beckman is just behind Gustafson, averaging 12.5 points per game last season. Sophomore Janie Schoonhoven played a big role on the court as a freshman last year, giving her a 7.9 points per game average. Hopping into the starting line-up right away as a freshman, now sophomore Hayden Heimensen scored 7.5 points per contest last season.
But numbers aren’t everything. Points are how you win a game, rebounds give you second chance points, a high defensive rating means you have a better chance at stopping tough opponents, and a good record gives you an upper hand in the postseason. But numbers are not what make up a team, especially not this team. What isn’t accounted for on the stats sheet is the heart of this Defender team, the consistency, the motivation, the determination, and the mental toughness.
Harmsen described numbers and statistics as fickle, and each woman on their team is not defined solely by the numbers they produce. Rather, the team thrives off leading with love, serving with passion, radiating positivity, and serving a Christ-like purpose.
“We want to show up and give our best to create an expectation of consistency for our program,” Gustafson said. “This mindset also translates over to life and showing up to do your best at whatever you are doing.”
The question arises on what the outcome will be for the Defender women in this new season. Will they repeat as national runners-up, or will they be national champions this time around? Maybe they will fall early and not make it to the final site of the national tournament. They might be tripped by a lower-ranked team during the GPAC tournament, or they could walk away as GPAC champions. No matter what happens, the team’s heart and fortitude are magnetic. You can’t help but watch them, and once you do, it’s hard to pull your gaze away.
The home opener for the Defenders is Oct. 27 against Presentation, with the GPAC season getting underway on Nov. 16 against Morningside in Sioux City, Iowa.
Photo credit: Dordt University Athletics