WBB: Intense coaching, senior leadership leads to Cyclones’ success

ISU guard Alison Lacey talks to her teammates during a timeout in the Cyclones’ game against Kansas State on Feb. 27 in Hilton Coliseum. The Cyclones beat the Wildcats 48-39. File photo: Logan Gaedke/Iowa State Daily

Logan Gaedke

ISU guard Alison Lacey talks to her teammates during a timeout in the Cyclones’ game against Kansas State on Feb. 27 in Hilton Coliseum. The Cyclones beat the Wildcats 48-39. File photo: Logan Gaedke/Iowa State Daily

Kayci Woodley —

In just the second week of practice, coach Bill Fennelly had an inkling he would need to coach this year’s team at a different level. The Cyclone lineup included five players who had never seen action in a Division I game and the squad had next to no experience in the post.

“When you have to count on [young players], you either let them learn at their own pace, which isn’t going to be quick enough, or you kind of force feed them,” Fennelly said.

Iowa State was picked to finish seventh in the Big 12 preseason poll and expectations may not have been high for the 2009-10 squad after losing five standout seniors from the 2008-09 roster. Had Fennelly not pushed this team as hard as he did this season, the preseason Big 12 prediction may have been correct.

Instead the Cyclones finished with a 25-8 overall record and the same record, 11-5, in Big 12 play as last year’s Elite Eight team.

A second place finish in the conference and a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament were earned as a result of Fennelly’s coaching and the work ethic behind ISU newcomers and returners. It would have been easy for the three freshmen posts — Chelsea Poppens, Anna Prins and Amanda Zimmerman — to use their inexperience as an excuse for not performing well, but that wasn’t an option.

“The worst thing you can do is feel sorry for yourself,” Fenelly said. “I mean there’s times that you don’t know what to do because you’ve never been in that environment, there’s times when that is an excuse that you can use when things go bad, so we pretty much didn’t tolerate that.”

The members of the coaching staff weren’t the only ones refusing excuses. Senior Alison Lacey was the captain of the ISU ship and if her speeches weren’t enough to motive players, the sacrifices she made spoke just as loud as her words.

“She was like E.F. Hutton,” Fennelly said. “They listened to her more than they listened to me.”

Even last summer, the sacrifice began for Lacey when she chose to remain in Ames over playing for her home country, Australia, in the World University Games. The sacrifices continued through the season as Lacey shouldered the ISU load, scoring the final bucket before the shot clock ran out, leading second-half comebacks and taking the blame for an unexpected loss.

“Everything that went bad with our team this year, it was two people’s fault — either mine or Aus,” Fennelly said.

Iowa State had dropped a surprising game to Drake in the team’s fourth game of the season and were 0-2 in conference play heading into the Colorado game Jan. 16. Leaving Boulder without victory was not an option, and Lacey made sure of it with her offensive scoring frenzy of 18 points in a row. In what could be the best individual game performance by any ISU women’s basketball player, Lacey took hold of what turned out to be the turning point of the season.

“We had four people stand around and watch her play,” Fennelly said. “It was like one of those times where it was like, ‘Please win the game for us because we can’t do it’.”

It was after the Colorado game when other players stepped up even more and Fennelly’s tougher level of coaching took stride. One newcomer in particular, Poppens, felt the side effects of Fennelly’s increased level of coaching for this season’s team. The coaching staff completely changed her shooting form when she entered as a Cyclone, and her level of play from the beginning to the end of the season made a complete 180 as a result.

“When we talk about coaching people hard, she got it the hardest and never wilted, never flinched,” Fennelly said. “I think she had a really good freshman year that when you really take a step back, it was probably a great freshman year.”

By the end of the year, her hustle plays and defensive rebounding stood out among other Cyclones, including in the team’s loss to No. 1 UConn in the NCAA Sweet 16 matchup. Poppens posted eight points, nine rebounds and finished 4-of-8 from the field. The Aplington native’s overall statistics increased in nearly every category in the last 20, and toughest, games of the Cyclones’ season.

“We’ve never had a player in my time here that made that much of a jump from start to the end of the year,” Fennelly said. “Not even close.”

Poppens finished with an average of 8.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, but she, along with other Cyclone players, could take even larger steps in the offseason. The coaches are allowed just six more workouts with the players this spring, leaving it up to the players themselves to push individually as hard as Fennelly and Lacey pushed them throughout the season.

“The term that every coach talks about is players are made in the offseason and teams are made during the season,” Fennelly said.

The Cyclones were able to improve as a unit as the Big 12 season progressed, playing against top teams in the country throughout their conference schedule, and although the Cyclones took a brutal beating from the Huskies in the NCAA tournament this year, playing against the top players in the country has its advantages.

“Number one, we play in the best league in the country; number two, there’s four teams in the Final Four, we’ve played three of them — beat two of them — so there’s nothing that our returning players haven’t seen,” Fennelly said. “Now the challenge is, ‘You’ve had success against some, you’ve been embarrassed by some, where do you go from here?’”

While the success of this season will likely carry over, a large piece of that success will be missing. As Lacey says goodbye to Iowa State, the question remains of whether or not junior Kelsey Bolte will step into that leadership position as she is the lone senior of next year’s team.

Bolte had the perfect model before her this season in Lacey as the Australian native took the helm after deferring to other Cyclone leaders in her first three years at Iowa State. Bolte has always been able to rely on Lacey to take the bulk of the responsibility, but next year all eyes could be on her.

“When you are asked to be that person, you have to want to be that person,” Fennelly said. “You can’t lead when you want to. You’ve got to lead all the time [and] your bad days can’t become everybody’s bad days.”

A different level of coaching from Fennelly and powerful leadership came from Lacey this season, and next season it could be the 6-foot-1-inch Ida Grove native that continues the Cyclone success.