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All five starters return for Cougar women

Coming off the best season in his tenure, the goals are simple for Minnesota, Morris fifth-year head women's basketball coach Tim Grove - repeat as Upper Midwest Athletic Conference (UMAC) champions and return to the NCAA Tournament.

"The expectations are high now," Grove said. "We want to win the UMAC again, and we expect to compete for a conference title. The team wants to return to the postseason. It won't be easy though, I think the league as a whole has improved. The top teams are getting better, but everybody is getting better. Any team could be the one to rise up. "

The 2009-10 edition of Cougar women's basketball strung together 14 straight wins to close out the regular season, capping off an unprecedented 13-1 conference record as they won their first UMAC title. The Cougars' dream season culminated with a 19-8 overall mark, and their first berth in the NCAA Division III tournament.

"We had a nice winning streak at the end," Grove added. "We had a good season that set us up for the bid to the NCAA Tournament.  The invite was unexpected, and was definitely the icing in the cake last year."

All five players who started in the NCAA tournament return for the Cougars in 2010-11 led by All-Conference performers Steph Roggenbuck (Osakis) and Emily Mehr (Aitkin).

"They are two of the top players in the conference," Grove said. "And they can hurt a team from anywhere on the floor."

Coming into her final season, Roggenbuck returns as the Cougars' scoring leader, after 13 points per game in 2009-10. In conference play she was even better, scoring over 14 a game and ranking fourth in the conference. She also ranked fourth in the league in rebounding, finishing as one of only four players to grab over 100 boards in the UMAC season.

Not far down the scoring list was Mehr, as she ranked eighth in the UMAC in a Freshman of the Year caliber season. Not just a threat down low, Mehr led the Cougars in three-point percentage, hitting at a 42 percent clip on the season.

Mehr and Roggenbuck will again be the base of the Cougars' two-post, three-guard line-up. A balanced, high-scoring attack that saw six players average better than six points per game last season.  That attack led to the league's second highest scoring offense, at 67.0 points per game last season, while leading the league in conference games at an even better tally of 69.0 points per game.

Add into that mix junior Kaila Lindsay (Becker), and the Cougars' front court will again be strong. "Kaila is a solid inside player, and after the improvements she made as an underclassman, we expect her to have a bigger role this season," Grove said.

Lindsay appeared in 16 games last season, including the last five in the late-season stretch run. In the regular season finale she erupted for a season-high 10 points and five rebounds.

"We try to be up tempo," Grove said. "We like to get out and run, and try to stay balanced with many scorers. We can play well down low, but even our posts players can step out and hit the three."

The floor leader of that offense is Brandi Cresap (Perham), who returns for her senior season after earning All-Conference Honorable Mention status as a junior.

"Brandi is a true point guard," Grove said. "She gets everyone involved and makes us better. She really grabbed the reigns last year, and we look for her to have even more authority this season. She is capable of being that player and can run the show."

In her fist season with the Cougars, after transferring from Central Lakes Community College, Cresap averaged 4.4 points per game and dished out 69 assists.

Joining Cresap in the back court will be fellow seniors Diane Blommel (Grey Eagle) and Tara Thielke (Hancock). Each player found themselves in the starting line-up throughout the season with Thielke finishing among the scoring leaders at over eight points per game. Blommel chipped in four points per game and was among the team assist leaders with 49 on the season.

"Tara is dangerous on offense," Grove said. "She can come in and knock down three-pointers to either help us come back or build up a lead. With Diane we have a great leader. She played three different positions last year and can do whatever we ask her."

The last of the returning starters is Jenni Noordmans (Hancock), a junior who averaged nearly eight points per game. One of the best shooters on the team, she led the way at the free throw line hitting 87 percent of her shots, while her 33 percent mark behind the arc was also among the Cougars' best. With the potential to score in double figures every night, Noordmans is yet another part of the Cougars talented group of guards.

Wrapping up the returners is Kelsey Erickson (Mora) and Abby McDaniel (Champlin), another set of guards with Erickson at the point and McDaniel out on the wing. Each in their sophomore season, their ability to score showed through as freshmen and will be key to the Cougars' success this season. Erickson will be expected to step in and run the show without the Cougars missing a beat, while McDaniel will be looked at as a go-to player when in need of a score.

New to the Cougars this season will be transfers Alyssa Silva (Maple Grove) and Alisha Schuerman (Clara City), and freshmen Abby Fragodt (Benson) and Heather Kamps (Stillwater). With Silva as the lone guard among three forwards, each player has the ability to make an impact right away. An athletic and intelligent group, they shine a bright light on the future of Cougars women's basketball.

In the present, however, the Cougars can expect the best shot from their UMAC rivals, as Minnesota, Morris was a unanimous pick to repeat as league champion. The first opportunity to defend their title comes just after the calendar turns when the Cougars begin UMAC play against Presentation on Jan. 11.

Before that, however, is a daunting non-conference slate, set up to prepare the team for the conference schedule.

"We have some difficult opponents in the non-conference season," Grove said. "Facing that competition, though, will allow for success when we get to the conference season. We're going to face some athletic and physical teams, but then we'll see any problems and have a chance to fix them."

The all-important second season then begins on Feb. 23, in the opening round of the UMAC Tournament. The stakes are raised in 2011, as the tournament champion gets an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament for the first time.

"Knowing that the automatic bid is out there this year is a great motivator," Grove said. "Anyone could be left standing and we want to make sure it's us."