Youth and inexperience in Division III basketball are often synonyms for rebuilding.
A women's basketball team led by freshmen and sophomores usually struggles. However, the Wheaton College women are not only leading the CCIW and ranked nationally, they are doing it all while learning on the fly.
The Thunder (12-1, 3-0) battled through a difficult nonconference schedule and early CCIW games all while being comprised of four freshmen, seven sophomores, one junior and only two seniors. Coach Kent Madsen said that although the team is young, the players have shown they can learn how to adjust quickly. Madsen said learning to improve and change from game to game can be one of the most difficult things for young college players to learn.
"They are getting more and more used to preparing for each team and the adjustments you have to make from a game-to-game basis," Madsen said. "We have to make certain adjustments for every game we play. How we want to defend them or what will be most effective offensively. A lot of time your upperclassmen will at least have some idea of how to play a team."
Wheaton is coming into what could be the most important stretch of its season. Wednesday it will host Carthage, the team picked to finish first in the CCIW by coaches before the season started. The Thunder will follow that with a trip to Illinois Wesleyan, which Madsen said may have played the toughest nonconference schedule in the country. The three teams, Wheaton, Illinois Wesleyan and Carthage are tied atop the CCIW standings with undefeated conference records.
The Thunder purposely scheduled an especially difficult nonconference schedule of its own, Madsen said, to prepare for a stretch like this. He said he knows this is an extremely important stretch of games, but they have to focus on one of them at a time. Underclassmen like Wheaton's Kate McDaniels may lead the team statistically, but Madsen said the few upperclassmen on the team are playing huge roles.
"Thankfully, even though we are extremely young one of our seniors, Maris Hovee, has a ton of game experience because she has started for basically two and a half years and was all-conference last year," Madsen said. He also said he has gotten big play from fellow senior Lauren Graham and junior Maria Panaggio.
As the Thunder enter its toughest stretch of the season, Madsen said it will need team play to get it through it. To beat Carthage Madsen said it will need tight team defense and good ball movement. Most importantly, the Thunder will need to hit the open shots it gets because there won't be many.
Luckily, Madsen said he has a strong group around him.
"I'm fortunate, I work with a wonderful group of young ladies that care about just wanting to be the best and that requires teammwork. If you are going to be succesfull then you will have to work together," Madsen said. "But we are extremely young."
The CCIW has announced it will be introducing a new team to the conference for the 2014-15 men's and women's lacrosse season. The latest team to join the conference is the University of Dubuque.
The women's team has competed in the sport since 2013, but this year will be the first for the men. Dubuque will join CCIW core members Augustana, Carthage, Elmhurst, Illinois Wesleyan and North Central on the women's side. The men will join the same group with the only exception being North Central.