It's tough to say where the Drake University women's basketball program would be today without Head Coach Jennie Baranczyk- now in her fourth season with the Bulldogs. Under Baranczyk's direction, the culture has transformed into nothing short of robust because of a game-changing vision that has attracted some of the Missouri Valley Conferences' top talent.
In year one, the Bulldogs won 11 games. In year two, the Bulldogs won 17 games. And in year three, the Bulldogs had one of their best finishes since 2002 with 20 wins and an automatic bid to the WNIT. Baranczyk has high expectations for this year's squad- and rightfully so with marquee players like juniors Lizzy Wendell and Caitlin Ingle.
With Wendell, tabbed preseason MVC Player of the Year, and Ingle at point guard, who has All-MVC Freshman Team and All-MVC First Team honors to her name, the Bulldogs will be a force to be reckoned with among Valley foes.
"The expectations have changed since year one," Baranczyk noted. "And not just among our team and our program, but our fan base as well. Last year we were still figuring out what it looks like to win; now we have to learn how to step up everyday when we have a target on our back."
However, that is not to entirely dismiss the early stages of Baranczyk's career at Drake. With change comes growing pains- some more painful than others- and learning curves. Although Drake won just 11 games in the 2012-13 campaign, Baranczyk and her squad spoiled a few post-season hopes by making it to the MVC Championship game. Perhaps it has been the highs and lows that have shaped the culture as it currently stands.
"We did a lot of things in that first year that led to growth," Baranczyk expressed. "We may not have gotten all the wins we wanted, but in the long run, it helped us win." Baranczyk went on to say that the intangibles have always been focus points. It still holds true heading into year four that team chemistry and culture are two things a program must be intentional about.
For Wendell and Ingle leading the Bulldogs this season, the story isn't much different. The dynamic duo is focused on constant improvement and setting the standards for the underclassmen who don't know anything different.
"The last few seasons have just added confidence," Wendell said. "Our program is to the point where we're able to bring in younger players who can be thrown into the fire right away. With time, we're not only deeper and more confident, but more comfortable with the coaches and our offense."
While Wendell was named the MVC Freshman of the Year in her inaugural season, you will not find complacency in her blood. As a sophomore, she averaged a Valley-best 21.8 points per game, reached the 1,000-career points milestone, dropped 40 points on two separate occasions and was a top contender for Player of the Year. Shockingly enough, people did guard her.
Much in part to Wendell's contributions, the Bulldogs finished the 2014-15 season ranked first in six statistical categories: points, field goal percentage, rebounding offense, rebounding margin, assists and defensive rebounds. It's safe to say Ingle carried the weight in the assist's column, averaging a Valley-high and ninth in the nation, 6.7 assists per game.
While Wendell made her job a little easier, her dime-dropping abilities turned many heads. Not only was Ingle named to the Nancy Lieberman Watch List last year, which recognizes the best point guards in the country, she also became the first player in the MVC since 2009 to post a triple-double in points, assists and rebounds. Like Wendell, Ingle is determined to build off the last couple seasons.
"The biggest step I've taken since last year is communication and more effectively controlling the floor," Ingle said. "We're a young team, so I have to continue to manage the floor, put people in good positions and lead by example."
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Since Baranczyk took over in 2012, Drake has rallied around three central philosophies: communication, rebounding and an up-tempo mentality. This season will be no different- but Drake took a big hit when 2014-15 All-MVC Freshman Team and All-MVC Honorable Mention selection Becca Jonas was plagued with a season-ending knee injury. Jonas averaged 12.5 points and 9.1 rebounds per game last season and was an integral component of the Bulldogs' lineup down low.
"Some things will look different when you lose a key player, but the system isn't lost," Baranczyk said. "We have some other really good pieces to help replace what Becca brought to the table. While there might be some gaps in terms of talent, we have the chemistry. I truly believe our team sees each other as best friends."
With one senior in Emma Donahue, other key players are junior college transfer Cortni Rush, three-point specialist Paige Greiner, 2015 Freshman of the Year Maddy Dean and four incomers in Sammy Bachrodt, Nicole Miller, Maddy Johnson and Sara Rhine; the Bulldogs will have a handful of weapons in their arsenal alongside Ingle and Wendell.
"Maddy has grown a lot communication wise and has taken on more of a leadership role even as a sophomore," Wendell said. "She'll have to help lead us in rebounding and continue to hit big shots like she has in the past. I know she's ready to do that."
Donahue, too, has evolved immensely during her time spent in a Drake uniform. The 6'3" senior has seen just about everything since her freshman season- and has all the confidence in the world from her teammates and coaches.
"In many ways we're relying a lot on freshmen, sophomores and an inexperienced senior," Baranczyk said. "But Emma is playing like a veteran right now."
"Emma is going to give us some really quality minutes," Wendell added. "Her rebounding will be huge; she's going to have a great senior year." With the growth that has allowed Drake's program to blossom in the last three years, Donahue is bound to be sent out on a high note.
However, in order to do so, the Bulldogs must face a wealth of competition in their non-conference season to prepare them for the dogfight that is to come when conference play ignites. The team has already embraced the challenges that likely lie ahead in playing against bigger, faster and stronger opponents in the coming months.
On the 2015-16 non-conference slate, the Bulldogs will go head-to-head with a handful of powerhouses in Iowa State, University of Iowa, Creighton University, the Dakota's and the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.
"Our expectations are still to win and get better with every game," Wendell said. "When we're the underdog, we have to go in with a chip on our shoulder in knowing that we're capable of beating the bigger schools."
"It's our job to make sure the entire team knows we can play with anyone if we bring our best," Ingle added. "If the underclassmen see us confident in playing these teams, they'll naturally catch on. We don't shy away from talking about winning; it's something we expect to do."
Once conference season comes around, the Bulldogs will be well equipped for a senior-led conference, laced with some of the best programs in mid-major hoops along with some up-and-coming teams.
"There are so many good teams in the Missouri Valley like Missouri State University, Southern Illinois University and University of Northern Iowa," Baranczyk noted. "But at the same time, there are a lot of unknowns. Overall, though, our league is in a really good spot."
Behind Missouri State, Drake was preseason picked second in the conference. After rounding out the front nine of conference play 9-0 last season, the Bulldogs look to showcase some of their biggest strengths again this season.
The bottom line?
Drake can shoot the ball; Drake can run the ball and Drake has the brains to pick people apart. Throw in a few players like Nicole Miller and Sammy Bachrodt to pick up the defensive intensity and the Bulldogs have a pretty remarkable repertoire in front of them.
Baranczyk has braced the program to new heights each season, setting a renewed and energetic precedence for every year that follows. Being average is no longer in the picture whether it's on or off the court.
The Bulldogs have not only won more games from year to year, but also attracted enough fans to lead the Missouri Valley Conference in attendance last season. The Bulldogs have given their loyal following much more to cheer about than cashing in three-pointers; they have also ranked No. 4 among all NCAA Division I women's basketball programs with a staggering cumulative GPA of 3.599 and racked up 1,000 hours of community service.
While it has been far from rainbows and butterflies to get the Bulldogs to where they are now, the tide is indeed shifting in Drake's favor. Another year of building off the last is on the horizon. It will not be easy- but the Bulldogs are welcoming the challenge with open arms.