The now-expected strong showing by the Mid-Central Conference combined with other big efforts by non-MCC in-state schools has given this week's NAIA Division 2 national tournament a decidedly Indiana feel to it. Whether any of those six schools can bring the Hoosier state a second NAIA championship in four seasons remains to be seen with action underway in Sioux City, IA.
One team already well on its way is 2007 champ Indiana Wesleyan, who won their opening round game against Concordia (NE) 56-42. IWU, which won their conference regular season championship, improved to 27-6 on the year in advancing to the Sweet 16. Leading the way for the Wildcats is Elaine Hessel of Plymouth (pictured, 18.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg) with Covenant Christian's Kayla Thompson (11.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg) providing outside support. Wesleyan now advances to take on Black Hills (SD) in the Sweet 16.
Nipping on IWU's heels in league play just one game of their pace was perennial power St. Francis. A heart-breaking 67-65 overtime loss to Aquinas (MI) was a rare negative in a season that saw the Cougars improve from 15-16 to 23-11 and capture the league's conference tournament title. Bessie Jenkins (F.W. Wayne) paced St. Francis with 14.9 points and 5.6 rebounds, while Warsaw grad and Butler transfer Julie Seiss (13.1 ppg, 4.6 apg) had her best season to date. Chanell Ridley of F.W. Concordia (8.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg) was another impact player for Gary Andrews.
A balanced attack has been the hallmark of the success for Huntington this season. A 21-9 finish to the year was good enough for a #5 seed in their bracket at nationals for a first round game against Sterling (NE). Sarah Miller (Delta) paces the Foresters with 13.7 points, while former DeKalb teammates Courtney Beerbower (13.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg) and Jenna Donaldson (12.8 ppg, pictured) have provided strong senior leadership. Oak Hill product Lauren Meese (9.3 ppg, 3.0 apg) has been a rookie standout.
A fourth MCC entry at nationals is Taylor University. The Lady Trojans finished the regular season 17-11, were ranked 25th nationally to earn at at-large bid, and will try to take advantage in their showdown with Cedarville (OH). Another team built around balanced scoring, five Taylor players average between 12.6 and 8.4 points, led by New Castle's Allison Reece (12.6 ppg, 90.4% FT), Evansville Memorial's Tess Rudolph (11.3 ppg, 43.0% 3pt), and Warren Central's Bethany Ballard (10.7 ppg, 5.1 rpg).
Members of the Kentucky Intercollegiate league, IU-Southeast was making their sixth trip to nationals under coach Robin Farris. A 23-9 record included a 14-1 run heading into nationals, where they fought to a late tie against 10th ranked Jamestown (ND) before falling 65-58. Alden Krausse of Floyds Knobs (played high school in Kentucky) averaged 10.0 points and 5.2 rebounds while Bloomington South's Megan Murphy (7.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg) was another southern standout for the Grenadiers.
While the other five teams had seen numerous previous appearances at nationals, IU-Northwest is making their first visit in school history. Do-everything post Sharon Houston from Merrillville leads an almost entirely Region-based squad, ranking top ten nationally in four categories (25.1 ppg, 14.9 rpg, 3.8 bpg, 57.6% FG). Long-range sniper Juliette Keller (Kouts) has hit 67 threes on her way to a 12.4 average. The RedHawks (22-10) face the daunting task of challenging defending champs and 3rd ranked Northwestern (IA) in their opening-round game.
The NAIA tournament plays all 31 games over the grueling span of just seven days with the champion needing five wins to bring home the trophy. Live stats can be found on the national webpage.
Photos courtesy of the sports information departments at Indiana Wesleyan, Huntington, and IU-Northwest