23.12.17

FROM THE RUINS OF THE NORTH STAR CONFERENCE.

Once upon a time, in a basketball universe far away, the women's teams of DePaul, Northern Illinois, Notre Dame, and Wisconsin-Green Bay played in a common conference.  (Football I know was another matter and I don't recall the details for men's basketball.)

DePaul and Notre Dame have subsequently migrated to what we understand these days as power conferences.  Wisconsin-Green Bay and a few of the other members of that North Star Conference, and something called the Association of Mid-Continent Universities (there was something prevented them from calling it a conference, too much history) now make up something called the Horizon League.  And the power in the Horizon League has been, and appears to continue to be, Wisconsin-Green Bay.
In a dramatization of the story of Green Bay women's basketball -- the mid-major of both modest means and more consecutive winning seasons (40) than any women's basketball program other than Tennessee -- a character based on [point guard Jen] Wellnitz would elicit snarky grumbling from critics.

The fourth of nine children who grew up dreading early-morning chores on a Wisconsin dairy farm? Such a die-hard Packers fan that she ignored her mother's gentle nudges to branch out and wore the same Brett Favre costume Halloween after Halloween?

In fiction it would lack a little, well, subtlety.

Except here she is. The dairy farm and Packers worship aren't the half of it.

In a city defined by football and where football is defined by the succession of quarterbacks, from Bart Starr to Favre to Aaron Rodgers, it hasn't been an easy fall. An injury that sidelined Rodgers threatens to doom the Packers. But on the other side of town, a former middle school quarterback holds the key to a 20th consecutive conference championship on the basketball court. The catalyst of a defense that helped Green Bay upset ranked Arizona State this past week and hold the Phoenix's first five opponents to fewer than 50 points, Wellnitz remains very much a product of the gridiron.
That's been the Wisconsin-Green Bay recruiting formula for years, scrappy kids off the farm.  Ms Wellnitz hails from South Wayne, which is closer to Platteville or DeKalb than to Green Bay, and if you look at a Phoenix roster you learn about places like Lena and Clintonville.

But what, exactly, does being the class of the Horizon League mean?
Jessica Lindstrom has displayed two distinct personalities during her basketball career at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

There’s the Lindstrom off the court, the one UWGB coach Kevin Borseth describes as the nicest person you’d ever meet. The one who Phil Roe, her former high school coach at Superior, once pointed out spent countless hours working with young girls in the community through basketball camps and practices.

Then there’s the Lindstrom on the court. The 6-foot-1 forward who fights and scratches and claws for every point and rebound. The one who figuratively wants to tear her opponent’s heart out.

She loves little kids, but even they don’t get free passes from that Lindstrom, which never was more evident than during UWGB’s 75-64 win at Dayton on Wednesday.

It was the Flyers’ annual School Day game, which is a math-related field trip for kids in elementary and middle schools around the area. They represented most of the 8,416 in attendance that day, and when they were told to get loud, they got loud. Really loud. High-pitched screams loud.
No mention of Ms Lindstrom playing hockey as a kid, which is what you'd expect in Superior.  The little kids?  They got midday away from classes, maybe some photographs with the Flyers, the way DeKalb area kids got.

Deeper in the story, we see an interesting collection of teams recruiting Ms Lindstrom.
She had offers from Wisconsin, Marquette, UW-Milwaukee, Northern Illinois, Drake and North Dakota State before committing to the Phoenix before her senior season.

It’s not often players from the state turn down an opportunity to go to Wisconsin, but Lindstrom never has once looked back and second-guessed her decision.

Along with the NCAA tournament appearances and the Horizon League championships, her team has gone 3-1 against the Badgers during her career and has established itself for now as the top program in the state.
Wisconsin?  That's been a disaster area for years.  Rockford's Stephanie Raymond turned Wisconsin down for Northern Illinois, and parlayed that into a brief professional career.  I wonder if Wisconsin are still unsuccessfully recruiting against mid-majors (or Marquette, which I think play in the Big East these days.)

But turning down Northern Illinois?  Perhaps that made sense at the time.  On the other hand, the Northern Illinois return to the Mid-American might have required the team to lift its game.  For all those comparisons in Green Bay with Tennessee's tournament history, let the record show that the one time a Pat Summitt team was one and done, it was Ball State did the done.  Yes, some years the Phoenix have flirted with making the round of sixteen.  And yes, it has taken a long time for Northern Illinois to contend in the Mid-American.  And the road will only get harder.
The good news for us fans of the MAC is that the [performance rating] really likes us so far. There are two teams inside the top 30 and 6 in the top 100. Having half the conference in the top 100 at this point in the season is an impressive stat to have. When the dust settles at the end of the year, the MAC might be getting a team or two selected to go to the NCAA tournament, and not just the automatic bid given to the MAC tournament winner.
At that writing, Northern Illinois was at 161.  And no sneaking up on teams this year, the way they could early last season.

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