Back in November, the Saint Francis women’s basketball team lost a lot of games, including one to nationally-ranked Davenport (78-59). So the fact that the Cougars have to face the Panthers again might seem intimidating to some. But one needs to keep in mind that the Saint Francis team that Davenport faced at the beginning of this season is a far, far cry from the current Cougars.
Saint Francis (18-15) will battle the Panthers (30-3) in the opening round of the NAIA Division II National Tournament Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. (EST) in Sioux City, Iowa.
Every season a coach has to assemble a new team, but second-year coach Jason Ridge took that to the extreme this season. The Cougars returned just five players from last year, and only two of those players averaged double figure minutes.
He brought in seven freshmen last fall and has already signed six more for next year.
“We had to learn how to play with a shot clock,” Ridge said of his team’s youth. “We had to learn how to play with college defenders guarding us. We had to learn how to play when the other team has just as skilled of players as us. There were just so many things that we were learning.”
That is precisely why Saint Francis lost 14 of its first 25 games. However, those lessons began to take hold and the Cougars closed the season with seven victories in eight games.
“The secret to our success was that there was no secret,” Ridge said. “We were involved in a process of trying to get better. We were not changing things as the season went on. We just kept trying to do the things that we were doing. We tried to do them better.”
Which they did.
Take for example, the Cougars’ contests against defending national champion and Crossroads League champion Marian.
Back in November, not long after the aforementioned Davenport game, Saint Francis played at Marian and got run out of the gym 72-57. But fast forward to nine days ago and the Cougars fell to the Knights 59-57 on a shot in the final seconds in the league tournament title game.
“We left there thinking we should’ve won that game,” Ridge said.
Saint Francis is still young, but 33 games into the season, Ridge’s work on the recruiting trail over the past two seasons is showing.
Freshmen Kara Gerka (14 points and seven rebounds per game) was recently named to the league’s All-Newcomer squad, as was freshman Lauren McBryar (14 points and four rebounds per game). The most startling fact about those two is that they are both coming off knee injuries from high school.
“We knew when we recruited them that they were going to be special players,” Ridge said of the duo. “The thing that I have been most impressed with is, with both of them, is the consistency in which they have played.”
Those two lead the Cougars in scoring, while classmate Savannah Buck has started 32 games at the point guard spot and has dished out a team-leading 131 assists.
“I’ve seen Savannah play a lot of games,” Ridge said of the Homestead High alum. “I knew that she was going to be able to lead a team.”
Those freshmen have joined veterans Quila Jackson (a Northrop grad), Paige Frisch (Norwell) and guard Josie Murphy (she averages nearly 20 minutes per game), each of whom have gradually gotten the team to improve.
“We finally got ourselves in position where we were getting some leads and holding onto those leads,” Ridge said, “and we just got some confidence. Once it got rolling, honestly, we have gone into every game thinking we are going to win the game.”
That wasn’t the case four months ago, but it will be Wednesday.