Iowa State moves on from loss of strong leadership

Iowa State seniors Alexa Middleton, Bridget Carleton and Meredith Burkhall stand together following the Iowa State vs. Kansas Senior Night basketball game March 4 in Hilton Coliseum. 

Jack Shover

Gone from the Iowa State women’s basketball program are Bridget Carleton, Alexa Middleton and Meredith Burkhall, who all graduated from last year’s NCAA Tournament team.

With their departures, the Cyclones aren’t just missing their production on the court, but also their leadership and presence off the hardwood.

Coach Bill Fennelly described the trio of Carleton, Middleton and Burkhall as perhaps the best senior class he has had in the past 24 years of coaching with the program.

With their departures, Fennelly said there is no single player to fill the ever-present void left by those players — especially Middleton and Carleton.

“You don’t lose a player and person — leader — like Bridget [Carleton] and say, ‘Well, you’re next’ when she might have been the only one who’s ever done it in my time here,” Fennelly said.

Of the platoon of players left to the task of taking on leadership roles, seniors Adriana Camber and Inès Nezerwa have established themselves as vocal leaders on the team.

Last season, both players played in reserve roles as Camber averaged 11.1 minutes a game and Nezerwa averaged 8.9 minutes.

“Everybody saw Bridget [Carleton] and the great leader she was, so she being my best friend last year, I kind of learned from her,” Camber said. “I’m hoping to be just half as good as she was being in a leadership role.”

Camber and Nezerwa will need to continue to develop as the team’s vocal leaders since the team is already feeling the loss of last year’s seniors in practice.

Fennelly said he takes detailed notes every practice and this year’s practices are already not up to par with the previous years, which were led by the departing members.

Of 153 practices last season, Fennelly said there were only three practices that he felt the players didn’t ‘show up’ for. This year’s 2019-20 squad has only had six practices so far and has already had a practice where the team’s level of effort wasn’t satisfactory.

Moving forward, Fennelly wants his team to go out, compete and not make excuses.

“Bridget Carleton’s not here, Alexa Middleton’s not here,” Fennely said. “They are not going to be here, so if we’re all going to live in the past then we deserve what we get, or I should say what we don’t get.”

The team’s response to poor in-game performances will be a major factor in how the team does this year.

Camber said she has experience from her freshman year when the Cyclones went on a losing streak during the end of the Big 12 season, an experience she says she can use to keep the team positive when the morale is low from losses.

“The safety net that was those three kids is gone, so it’s up to us to fight through it, and when those days come […] there’s going to be a lot more of them this year than last year,” Fennelly said.

Fennelly said there is a certain way to act and play when playing for Iowa State, and the team has had to move on from great players before, whether that was Angie Welle in the early 2000s or Carleton now.

Outside of Camber and Nezerwa, the Cyclones’ point guard position, which was occupied by Middleton last season, has yet to find an established starter.

Camber, Ashley Joens, Madi Wise and Kristin Scott are the team’s established starters, but point guard will come down to a positional battle between seniors Jade Thurmon and Nia Washington, junior Rae Johnson and five-star freshman Maggie Espenmiller-McGraw.

Like Camber and Nezerwa, all of these players — with the exception of Espenmiller-McGraw — played in reserve roles last season and have played under good leaders like Middleton.

“I’ve been under pretty good leaders before,” Washington said. “I was under Jadda Buckley my freshman year and now Alexa [Middleton] last year so being behind those good leaders has primed and prepped me for being a leader for these young ones here.”

While applicable to all the upperclassmen point guards on the team, Fennelly said if Johnson wants to win the starting spot, she needs to decide whether or not she wants to lose it to freshman Espenmiller-McGraw.

Espenmiller-McGraw, who Fennelly said would be the starter prior to practice starting, may be the most talented player at the position, and the other players can take over the position by playing with consistency and an on-court command like the team had with Middleton last year.

The on-court command is something the team needs, and Fennelly said it will take players like Camber stepping up to outperform what their expectations are on paper.

Without Carleton, Middleton and Burkhall, Iowa State will have trouble replicating its NCAA Tournament appearance from last year.

“This team, it’s their turn and we’ll see what people say about this team after the year’s over,” Fennelly said.