Ask the St. Ambrose women’s basketball team, which will build its hopes of returning to the NAIA Division II elite around a five-player senior class.
Combined with three juniors, the Queen Bees have as much experience as ninth-year coach Krista Van Hauen’s has enjoyed in recent seasons.
“It’s been a couple of years since we’ve had this many upperclassmen on the roster and in the way they’re working you can tell the seniors want to end their careers in Sioux City at the national tournament,’’ Van Hauen said. “They want to make that happen.’’
Van Hauen believes overcoming a 4-12 start to reach .500 in conference play and qualify for the eight-team Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference tournament has provided offseason motivation for a veteran team.
“After missing out the previous year, just getting back to the conference tourney was big for us,’’ Van Hauen said. “Now, it’s time to build off of that.’’
Senior Hailey Cook and sophomore Madi Epperson, the freshman of the year in the CCAC last season, provide the Bees with an inside-outside combination to lead the way.
Cook, a 5-foot-11 forward from Moline, averaged 11.9 points and 5.1 rebounds per game last season while Epperson hit a team-leading 36.2 percent from 3-point range as a freshman. The 5-7 guard from Athens, Illinois, averaged 11 points and led St. Ambrose with 82 assists a year ago.
“The potential we see in this team has us all excited,’’ Cook said. “We lost two good seniors from a year ago, but with the experience we have, we’re prepared to compete at a pretty high level.’’
The Bees believe game-tested talent may be the key to it all.
“We’re in a better position now from an experience standpoint,’’ senior guard Aubrie Carlisle said. “The last couple of years, we’ve had a lot of new players trying to mix in. We’re an older team now and in our conference, that is going to make a difference.’’
Van Hauen sees the potential for plenty of balance.
She likes the depth of the roster as well as the experience and has already utilized both.
St. Ambrose rotated 13 players as the Bees went 3-0 at a recent preseason shootout event hosted by Kirkwood Community College.
“I think we have a chance to have a lot of players who are going to give us 6-to-10 points a game to go along with a few in double figures,’’ Van Hauen said. “If we can develop that kind of offense, I think we have a chance to be a really hard team to defend.’’
Epperson will give defenses something to deal with on the perimeter and she’s not alone.
Seniors Candace Finnin and Hannah Ford along with Carlisle bring three-point range to the St. Ambrose offense while senior Mercedes Jackson and junior Charlotte Flynn add interior experience.
“The upperclassmen on this team, especially the seniors, are really determined to make this a special year,’’ Epperson said. “We have the talent to make that happen. This team is working hard to reach its potential.’’
Van Hauen, whose program last reached the NAIA national tourney in 2016, senses that as well.
St. Ambrose positioned itself to reach the league tourney last season by winning 8-of-11 games during a late-season stretch.
“Things came together and I think in that stretch, the light bulb came on for a few of our younger players who coming back this fall aren’t so young anymore,’’ Van Hauen said.
“We got a little taste of what the postseason was like last year and that has left us as a pretty hungry team. I see that as a good thing now. It’s a pretty determined group.’’