HOOPS: Experienced sophomore frontcourt leads Cyclones into 2010

Chelsea Poppens drives to the basket during the game against the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Sunday, December 6, 2009 at Hilton Coliseum.

Photo: Karuna Ang/Iowa State Daily

Chelsea Poppens drives to the basket during the game against the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Sunday, December 6, 2009 at Hilton Coliseum.

Dan Tracy

In 2009, ISU coach Bill Fennelly brought in a nationally ranked recruiting class that he hoped would complement the play of Iowa State’s senior guards Alison Lacey and Denae Stuckey.

At 6 feet 7 inches, Anna Prins, the tallest player in program history, battled through illness throughout the season yet still made the Big 12 All-Freshman team. Forward Chelsea Poppens and guard/forward Jessica Schroll both played in all 33 games with Poppens leading the Cyclones in rebounding with 7.2 per game. Forward Amanda Zimmerman came off of the bench and was the team’s most efficient shooter with a .513 field goal percentage.

“We had four freshmen last year that dramatically impacted our team,” Fennelly said. “What we hope is that now they understand what it means to play at this level and what it means to prepare to play at this level.”

Fast forward to this season and that freshman quartet from a year ago, along with senior Kelsey Bolte, will anchor a team that no longer has the experienced backcourt tandem that guided the Cyclones to back-to-back trips to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen.

“We have a lot of room to improve, especially after last year having so much pressure,” Poppens said. “This year there is still the same amount of pressure to improve, but we know our roles and we know what we have to do.”

Instead of Lacey and Stuckey, a pair of freshmen, two junior college transfers and junior Chassidy Cole will roam the perimeter and handle the ball for the Cyclones this season.

The key departure that the Cyclones will deal with this season is of Lacey, the team’s leading scorer and an All-America Honorable Mention honoree in 2009.

While Lacey was busy winning a WNBA Championship with the Seattle Storm this summer, Fennelly was busy fielding questions about which of the players on the ISU roster with a “G” next to their name would be bringing the ball up for the Cyclones this season. Two of those players, Schroll and Bolte, have been ruled out as candidates for the vacant point guard position.

Although Schroll only started one game last season, Fennelly believes that Schroll’s versatility and enthusiasm on the floor will be one of the keys to success for the Cyclones this season.

“At the end of the year, if you said to me, ‘Jessica Schroll had a really good year,’ we’ll be good,” Fennelly said.

Fennelly sees the 5-foot-11-inch Midland, Mich., native fitting a similar role that Stuckey did in her tenure as a Cyclone.

“She’s bigger, stronger, faster and probably a little more skilled than Denae, so if she plugs into Denae’s spot at the same level or higher, it will make it easier for the point guard because now you have four options [to pass to],” Fennelly said.

Schroll hopes that after a productive offseason she’ll be able to contribute more to the team after averaging 3.9 points per game in her 16.8 minutes per game last season.

“I worked my butt off in the offseason, so hopefully we’re going to be pretty good,” Schroll said. “Our post players have improved, the new girls are looking great and the starters are still looking great, so I think we’re going to do just as good or better than last year.”

As for helping the new floor general adjust, Fennelly expects senior guard Bolte, the team’s lone senior, to provide some leadership for the younger guards.

At 12.3 points per game, Bolte was the second-leading scorer from a squad that averaged 65.4 points per game last season. Bolte was named All-Big 12 Honorable Mention in both her sophomore and junior seasons and was recently named to the All-Big 12 Preseason Team.

As for the remaining five guards, all have had opportunities to compete for the position throughout the first four weeks of practice. Those five are Cole, junior college transfers Darcie Dick and Lauren Mansfield and freshmen Kelsey Harris and Ellyn Arganbright. Similar to last season, Fennelly will have high expectations for the incoming four guards and freshman forward Hallie Christofferson.

“Last year the whole group had to play well, now we need one of them to play well,” Fennelly said. “I don’t think it will probably be the same one every night, but one of them has to show up and play.”

As for similarities amongst the point guard candidates to the departed Lacey, Mansfield – a junior college transfer from Midland College in Texas – holds the early edge, at least for country of origin, as a fellow Australia native.

“I think whatever point guard steps in, there’s going to be that pressure to take off where [Lacey] left off,” Mansfield said.

Also a juco transfer, Dick sees herself as being able to fill more of the scoring role that Lacey showed in her senior season when she averaged a team-leading 15.8 points per game.

“At my junior college I was just a point guard, but I know that [the coaches] see a shooter in me, so hopefully I’ll be able to shoot also,” Dick said.

In their first scrimmage of the season last Wednesday against the male practice squad, Mansfield and Cole split most of the time at point guard. Fennelly has made no decision at this point in the season about who the starter will be, but with no early front-runner, fans can most likely expect plenty of substitutions at point guard.

“This is the first time in my 16 years at Iowa State where I don’t think we can go into a season feeling that we have a legitimate true point guard to lead our team,” Fennelly said. “We have to find someone who can run our team and put us in a position to win games in our league and against the toughest schedule we’ve ever played.”

That schedule includes not only a tough 16-game slate of Big 12 Conference games but also has a number of challenging non-conference matchups away from Hilton Coliseum.

“You always know what the Big 12 is about, but certainly the non-conference part of our schedule is much more difficult than what we’ve had in a long time here,” Fennelly said.

The Cyclones will play in-state rivals and 2009 NCAA Tournament qualifiers Iowa and Northern Iowa on the road as well as make a trip to the Caribbean on Nov. 25-27 to play three pre-season ranked opponents in Virginia, TCU and West Virginia at the Paradise Jam Tournament at St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Despite the backcourt uncertainties and the demanding schedule, Fennelly remains excited for his 16th year at the helm.

“Like every year we go into it excited about the possibilities, the challenges are always the same for us and that’s to put a product on the court that our fans deserve and expect, and we look forward to doing that,” Fennelly said.

The team opened the season with exhibitions against Minnesota State-Mankato and Wartburg on Nov. 4 and 7. The regular season begins Saturday at home against Western Illinois.