Carollo’s bunch turn skeptics into believers

Clockwise, from top left: Megan Theune, Cortney Kumerow, Kaitlyn Thill, Jamie Swanson and Melissa Olsen. All have provided a spark for the women's basketball team and have put the Warhawks in good shape with the regular season more than half over. Photo Illustration by Andrew Smith.

With last Saturday being Alumni Day for the women’s basketball team, the likes of Heidi Sonntag and Nicole Bundy were wandering the halls at the Kachel Gymnasium.

Memories probably lingered in their heads of what they, along with Kelsey Hendrickson, accomplished here.

They were at the forefront of two WIAC championship teams, were part of the Final Four team in 2008 and helped revive a program that had struggled before they came to UW-Whitewater.

But without those three in a Warhawk uniform anymore, it appeared this year’s memories might not be as noteworthy for head coach Keri Carollo’s squad.

After all, the question marks were plentiful entering the 2010-11 campaign and it probably made some think that the streak of three straight NCAA tournament appearances might end.

Well, with just under three weeks left in the regular season, those questions have been answered.

In fact, this team (16-3), which boasts three freshmen in the starting lineup, is actually sitting better then it was at this time last year.

One year ago, the team was not in line to earn a NCAA tournament berth, and even after a lengthy winning streak to close the season, the Warhawks still weren’t sure if they would receive a bid.

This year, Carollo’s young bunch is sitting pretty and won’t have to do any sweating come Selection Sunday.

While they might be denied a third conference title in the last four years due to two blowout losses to conference frontrunner, UW-Stevens Point, getting to this point has been quite the surprise – at least for those on the outside.

They didn’t get respect in the preseason WIAC rankings, predicted to finish fourth behind UW-Stevens Point, UW-Eau Claire and UW-River Falls.

They also weren’t ranked in D3hoops.com’s preseason top 25 poll – a place in recent years the ’Hawks have been in.

Maybe it was because the “experts” thought they would not replace those three departed senior guards who could all light it up from the field and brought serious toughness and intensity.

Maybe people doubted Dana Thompson would regain her form less than 12 months after having major foot surgery to repair a broken bone.

But the freshmen, most notably Kaitlyn Thill, Mary Merg and Katie Burton, should have all the doubters turned into believers, as they have brought the same defensive tenacity and quickness Sonntag, Bundy and Hendrickson brought.

And anyone who was worried Thompson wouldn’t rebound after watching the team in 2010 on crutches, should take a look at her stat sheet. She’s started every game; she’s second in the WIAC in scoring and leads the league in shooting percentage.

Moreover, this team has found success because the new players have bought into Carollo’s system.

Carollo’s full-court press that she implements is as suffocating as ever and its run-and-gun style has opened up easy shots for Thompson, Chantel Burg and Cortney Kumerow.

Sure, there are still areas this team can work on, as turnovers are an issue (more than 20 per game).

This is the prime reason they haven’t defeated UW-Stevens Point this season and despite whipping UW-Stout on Saturday, they coughed up the ball too many times.

Nonetheless, this team appears to understand what it takes to win big games.

They already have impressive wins over national powerhouses Illinois Wesleyan University, George Fox University and Calvin College (all teams who were ahead of the ’Hawks in the initial national rankings).

They also already bypassed UW-Eau Claire and UW-Rivers in the WIAC standings.

From their play this year, the ’Hawks have shown preseason rankings mean nothing to them and what matters is what you do on the court.

And what they’re doing on the court is creating some noteworthy memories of their own.

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