I’m guessing it won’t surprise anyone to hear me join the chorus of those applauding the naming of Lindsay Whalen as the new women’s basketball coach at the U of M.
It only took seconds to get over my disappointment hearing in that Marlene Stollings was leaving the ‘U’ for Texas Tech, to then start to ponder whether the timing would be right for Whalen. Now that we have the answer to that question, let me tell you why I’m not going to hold back when it comes to great expectations... and I mean immediately.
The Gophers not only return 9 of 12 players from a team coming off a 24-9 record (and a journey into the second-round at the NCAA Tournament), the team recorded single-season program records for points scored (2,803), points per game (84.9), 3-pointers made (297), field goals made (997) and fewest turnovers (412).
Granted, a major factor in that success was senior Carlie Wagner, the in-state product who leaves as the program’s third-leading scorer. Wagner was just selected by the Lynx in last week’s WNBA draft. However, Stollings has left the Gopher women’s program in good shape on several fronts.
Junior Kenisha Bell figures to be All Big-10 (with WNBA potential), while sophomore Taive Belo scored 10-points, and freshman Destiny Pitts 17, including four 3-pointers, in the tournament win over UW-Green Bay.
To those riches, add what Stollings refers to as a “Top-50 recruiting class” that includes one junior college transfer who will be eligible to play in the fall. Houlfat 'Happy' Mahouchiza, is a 6-foot-1 forward/center from Marseille, France, by way of South Georgia Technical College. Mahouchiza was selected to participate in in the NJCAA Women's Basketball Association Coaches All-Star Weekend as one of the nation's top 40 rising junior college sophomores. Her coach at South Georgia Tech says Mahouchiza has unlimited potential, which she is just starting to realize.”
At least some of Wagner’s outside shooting may be replaced by Delaynie Byrne, a 6-2 Forward from Ralston Valley High School in Arvada, Colorado. With an ESPN Top-21 ranking at her position, Byrne should be able to step-out and knock down the 3.
Lesila Finau is a 5-10. Guard/forward combo of whom Stollings said “Her size, versatility and athleticism are going to be an asset for our program both offensively and defensively,” which means Coach Whalen should have options in how to best deploy her.
The newcomer who should make the most immediate impact on the program is Jaidah Stewart, a 5-9 all-conference, all-metro guard who was named All-State by Missouri High School coaches. Stewart helped Kirkwood High School win back-to-back Class-5 state championships, and also scored more than 1,500 points at her previous school, Webster Groves.
One of the areas of concern expressed towards Whalen is in her ability to recruit, yet here too Lindsay appears to be well-positioned for success. Her story, which includes a Final-4 appearance, an Olympic Gold Medal, 14 years in the WNBA and four league titles, should play well in almost every living room, everywhere. What differentiates Lindsay is her immediate ability to capitalize on what Stollings told me was her greatest recruiting advantage; the U of M’s relationship with the Lynx.
“It’s been a tremendous advantage for us," reflected Stollings. "Remember, last year’s WNBA Finals were held on our court and 3 of our 4 commitments went to the finals games. Cheryl’s been great to our program, so we see that relationship as a great advantage for us.”
Then, there’s this: In ESPN’s “Too Early Top-25” women’s basketball poll, Iowa was the only Big-10 team to make the Top 25, while both the Gophers and Nebraska were receiving votes. So, it doesn’t look like the Big-10 will pose as daunting a threat as it has in years past.
Throw in the newly upgraded facilities and Athlete’s Village, and it appears that Whalen will tip-off her coaching career with the wind at her back. Only time will tell whether Lindsay can take advantage or not, but my bet is she will quickly experience the same (or greater) level of success that led her to this opportunity. It's going to be a lot of fun to watch.
Gophers Boast High-Profile Coaches
With the addition of Whalen, I can’t ever remember a time when the Gophers had such high-profile names leading their biggest programs.
Sure, there are past coaches like Herb Brooks and Bill Musselman, who went on to national prominence as a result of their time at the ‘U’, but I can’t remember a time when we had so many coaches recognizable on a national level, at the same time.
Football Coach PJ Fleck became a media darling at Western Michigan, while Richard Pitino gets a pass just because of his last name. Then there’s Whalen and men’s hockey coach Bob Motzko, who recently coached Team USA to a Gold Medal at last spring’s World Junior Championship.
Factor in Volleyball coach Hugh McCutcheon, who came to the U of M after winning medals with both the Team USA men’s and women’s programs, and Brad Frost, who’s won multiple national titles with the women’s hockey program and you’re looking at an unprecedented group on campus, at least in terms of coaching pedigree.
Twins Hoping to Build on Playoff Appearance
The baseball season is young, but so far the only thing to slow down the Minnesota Twins has been, of course, the weather. Off-season pitching additions aside, the Twins (when we’ve been able to see them) appear to have picked-up right were they left-off last season, and the Twins players say that is no coincidence.
“These guys have been hungry since day one of spring training,” says hitting instructor James Rowson. “I think last year we were really excited about where we got to, but we left a little unfinished business, so this year our goal is to get to the World Series and win the World Series, right coming out of the chute. It’s not about individual statistics it’s a team focus and that’s our goal.”
That attitude is just one more reason why these early-season weather delays have ben so frustrating, as several Twins players remarked about how long the off-season was, and how they couldn’t wait to get back to work.
“Just getting that hunger from where we got last year, it gives me chills," says center field Byron Buxton. “Just to talk about it, it didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to, but the things we did last year, which nobody expected us to do, that’s what made last year so fun and that’s how we bonded together really well and has caused us to play so well this year.”
Unlike years past, expectations on this team know no limits. Already a confident group, with last year's playoff berth and a handful of important off-season additions the Twins now feel like they can compete with anybody.
“Coming into this year, then adding some of the pieces that may get us over the hump, the confidence level is definitely there,” says Gold Glove 2nd baseman Brian Dozier. “And at the same time, when you’re fundamentally sound and everything’s clicking you make for a pretty good baseball team and that’s where we are, right now."
If only they could do something about the weather...
Storley Changes Disciplines, Continues to Win
Gopher wrestling alum Logan Storley has made a seamless transition from the mat to the octagon.
Storley, a four-time All-American wrestler from Webster, South Dakota, ran his professional MMA record to 8-0 with a win in Friday night’s Bellator 197 in St. Louis, Missouri. Storley leaned heavily on his wrestling experience to post a unanimous decision over Joaquin Buckley.
“I feel great, and at the end of the day, I got the win,” Storley said after the fight. “The biggest thing tonight was when I stepped into this cage, it felt like home. I wasn’t worried, I wasn’t nervous. I went in there and did my job. I listened to my corner, and got the ‘W’.”
Storley was never in danger of tarnishing his undefeated record. The wrestler-turned-fighter smothered Buckley over three rounds to pick up the win by scores of 30-27, 30-26 and 30-26.
Now 3-0 with Bellator, Storley will continue to advance on the welterweight ladder with his next fight yet to be determined.