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Bears reload, seek fourth OAC title in five years

Northern brings back 12 varsity players from last year's roster. (photo/ ONU Sports Information)

The Ohio Northern women’s basketball team will begin their 2016-17 season on Tuesday night, when they travel to Case Western Reserve. It will be the start of a long journey for the Polar Bears, as they seek their sixth straight season with 20 or more wins. They will look to win their third consecutive OAC regular season title, and will try to qualify for the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in five years.

Northern’s 2015-16 season ended in the second round of the NCAA tournament, where they fell to Carnegie Mellon (PA), 68-65. The Bears finished 23-5 overall, going 17-1 in the OAC. They went undefeated through the first round of conference play and garnered a 12-game win streak before losing on the road to Capital in late January.

After that loss, Northern began an eight-game win streak that ended in the semifinals of the OAC tournament, when the Bears fell to Baldwin Wallace at home. ONU beat Denison in the first round of the NCAA tournament, giving up just 53 points in the effort. They would fall to Carnegie Mellon in round two, as they came back from a 14-point halftime deficit but could not close the gap.

Northern lost five games last year, and the combined record of those opponents was 110-29. Here’s who they lost to:

Rochester (NY): Finished 16th in the nation, lost in the Elite Eight.

Thomas More (KY): Won the National Championship, finished 32-0, and won every game by at least nine points.

Capital: Won 20 games, finished third in the OAC.

Baldwin Wallace: Won 17 games, finished fourth in the OAC.

Carnegie Mellon: Finished 25th in the nation, lost in the Sweet Sixteen.

ONU scored an average of 70 points per contest, while giving up just 54. It was the sixth straight season where coach Michele Durand’s team held opponents to under 60 points per game.

“I think that if we can hold teams to under 60, we can score 60,” Durand said.

The Bears will try to build on last year’s success this season, when they return two starters and many key role players. Northern was picked to finish first in the OAC, and was ranked 23rd nationally in the D3hoops.com preseason poll.

Here is an extensive look into this year’s team and the challenges they will face.

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Who’s gone

The Polar Bears graduated three starters from last year’s team (Carly Thomas, Brooke Espenschied and Karissa Steffas), as well as Precious Ramsey, who came off the bench to play 17 minutes per game. These seniors were the winningest class in program history, going 93-19 in their four years at ONU and losing just six home games.

Thomas played in 99 career games for Northern as a shooting guard, scoring 813 points and shooting 37 percent from three-point range. Espenschied played in 105 career games as a shooting forward, averaging 6.4 points per game. Steffas played in 88 career games as a power forward, scoring 513 points and grabbing 413 rebounds; she averaged seven boards per game last year. Ramsey played in 87 career games as a forward, tallying 208 rebounds for the Bears.

Northern will have to find a way to replace Thomas’s shooting, Espenschied’s defense, Steffas’s inside play and Ramsey’s leadership this season.

“They were all really skilled, so losing them has made a lot of people step up in bigger roles,” senior Britt Lauck said of last year’s senior class. “It’s been tough because we lost a lot of experience, but I think we’re getting better.”

 

Who’s back

Fortunately for the Bears, they are returning 12 players with varsity experience, including three seniors and six juniors. They are also returning their leading scorer and rebounder, Amy Bullimore, as well as their assist leader, Lauck.

Durand heads into her 16th season at the helm, looking for her fourth OAC title. She has won the OAC tournament once and has taken Northern to the NCAA tournament three times. Durand has won 60 percent of her games at ONU, and has won 82 percent of her games over the past five years, going 114-25 in that span.

 

The starters

According to Durand, this will be the starting five for Tuesday’s opener against Case Western:

PG Britt Lauck (Sr.) -- 10 ppg, 3.5 apg last season.

Scout’s take: Scoring point guard with an above-average pull-up jumper. Will be second scoring option behind Bullimore. Was named first-team All-OAC last season.

SG Courtney Cramer (Jr.) -- 4 ppg, 1.2 rpg last season.

Scout’s take: Three-point specialist and team’s best perimeter defender. Played 13 minutes per game in sophomore year, will play bigger role this year.

SF Angela Tesny (Sr.) -- 4 ppg, 2 rpg last season.

Scout’s take: Solid defender, smart player. Shot 50 percent from field and 45 percent from three-point range last year.

PF Jenna Dirksen (So.) -- 5 ppg, 2.4 apg last season.

Scout’s take: Skilled, athletic forward. Will play in the post and on the wing this year, as Durand plans to utilize the sophomore’s versatility.

C Amy Bullimore (Jr.) -- 13 ppg, 8 rpg last season.

Scout’s take: Leading scorer, dominant post presence. Runs floor well. Led OAC in field goal percentage and was named second-team All-Great Lakes Region, as well as first-team All-OAC, last season.

 

Returners off the bench

Junior point guard Lindsey Black will serve as the backup for Lauck. After appearing in 24 games her freshman year, she played in just nine last season because of an injury. Junior point guard Alexis Kirkbride will also sub in at point guard for the Bears this season; she appeared in 11 games during her freshman year, but redshirted last year due to an injury. Sophomore guard Alyssa Manley, who also played soccer for Northern this fall, averaged three points per game last season and will fill in as a combo guard. Sophomore forward Shannon Jack, a transfer from Division II Slippery Rock University, will play on the wing for Northern. Senior Amauria Campbell will fill in at the power forward position, along with sophomore Tori Wyss and junior Cheyenne Raker.

 

Meet the freshmen

Three freshmen will dress this year: Emily Mescher (Marion Local), Abby Weeks (Mount Notre Dame) and Kaitlyn Hurd (Nelsonville).

Mescher was a first-team all-MAC player last year at Marion Local High School, scoring 12 points and grabbing nine rebounds per game. She led the Flyers to the Division IV Wapakoneta District title game in her senior year, where they fell to Minster. Mescher will serve as the backup center to Bullimore, according to Durand.

“She brings a physical inside presence,” Durand said of Mescher. “She’s big, and for her size she’s very athletic; she can run really well. She’s a lot more physical than Amy, and is a good rebounder. What she has to work on is some of her moves around the basket, which isn’t atypical of a freshman. She’s getting better, and has gotten better every day in practice.”

Weeks was a first-team all-GGCL player last year at Mount Notre Dame High School, scoring 13 points and grabbing 3.5 rebounds per game. She led the Cougars to a conference championship in her senior year, as they finished undefeated in the conference and 19-4 overall.

Hurd will play a reserve role as a forward this season for the Bears. She led the Nelsonville-York Buckeyes to a 16-6 record last year, good enough for first place in the Tri-Valley Conference (Ohio Division).

 

The storylines

Continued dominance

Northern will look to win their third straight OAC regular season title, and their fourth in five years, this season. They will be challenged by Baldwin Wallace, who returns four starters and was picked second in the OAC after beating ONU in the semifinals of the conference tournament last season.

Role changes

Cramer, Tesny and Dirksen will all be new to the starting lineup this season. While Tesny has 26 career starts, Cramer and Dirksen will play starter minutes for the first time this year. Will Dirksen, who is an athletic 5’9, be able to rebound as a power forward? Will Cramer be able to maintain her high shooting percentage while playing more minutes? These questions will be answered soon.

Battling expectations

The Polar Bears were picked to finish first in the OAC this season, and are ranked 23rd in the country in the D3hoops.com preseason poll. But for Durand and this experienced team, preseason expectations mean little.

“Honestly, we haven’t talked once about our ranking or where we’re picked [to finish],” Durand said. “The girls haven’t even brought it up. We just focus on taking things one day at a time, it’s what’s worked for us in the past.”

 

Games to circle

Here are some of the key games on Northern’s schedule this season:

Nov. 19 at Denison

ONU beat Denison last year in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Denison finished 23-5 last season, and they are the defending NCAC champions. The Big Red were picked to win the NCAC again this year, and this early-season matchup in Granville will put Northern to the test.

Jan. 11 at Baldwin Wallace & Feb. 1 vs. Baldwin Wallace

Baldwin Wallace was picked to finish second in the OAC this season, receiving three first-place votes to Northern’s seven. The Yellow Jackets knocked ONU out of the conference tournament last season in the semifinals, and are returning four starters. These two games will be marquee matchups in the OAC this season.

 

Around the OAC

Aside from ONU and Baldwin Wallace at the top, the OAC will be wide open this season. Capital, who has recently been a consistent contender for the conference crown, graduated all five starters from last year’s 20-7 team and retained just nine players from their 2015-16 roster. The Crusaders were picked to finish fifth in the conference. Wilmington was picked to finish third, returning four starters and two key contributors who missed last season. The Quakers finished seventh in the OAC last year. John Carroll was picked to finish fourth, returning ten players from last year’s senior-less roster; they placed sixth in the conference last season.

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The Polar Bears will face Case Western Reserve on Tuesday night in their season opener. The Spartans went 8-17 last season, 3-11 in the UAA. Northern beat Case Western 72-51 last December in Ada. Tip-off will be at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday.