CEDAR FALLS - Even one of the most tumultuous days in Panther women's basketball history had a silver lining.
With a year of perspective, Northern Iowa coach Tanya Warren now sees the complete upside that came from last September's setback when reigning Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year Jacqui Kalin tore her ACL in a pickup game just five weeks prior to the Panthers' 2011-12 season opener.
Forced to undergo season-ending knee surgery, Kalin, who also had used a redshirt for the 2008-09 campaign with an ankle injury, was granted a sixth year of eligibility in April putting last fall's misfortune under a new light.
T-R PHOTO BY TYLER STRAND
The Northern Iowa women’s basketball team met for its media day event Friday at the McLeod Center in Cedar Falls, led by its three seniors Amber Kirschbaum, from left, Jacqui Kalin and Mercedees Morgan. The Panthers collected a school-record 63 wins during the last three seasons.
"When you're going through the storm, you never see or understand the blessing. But as I look back on what took place a year ago, and where we are now, there's no doubt in my mind that that was the blessing - to have her come in and be around to tutor our young kids," said Warren on Friday at UNI's women's basketball media day at the McLeod Center.
Leading Northern Iowa to 63 wins over the past three years - a school record for that span - Warren enters her sixth year at the helm with the youngest roster she's managed since her debut season with the Panthers.
With underclassmen representing 12 of the 16 spots on this year's roster, Kalin's leadership - both on and off the floor - will be immeasurable as the Panthers vie for a fourth straight postseason tournament bid and their third NCAA tourney berth in the last four years.
The sixth-year senior's presence has already been felt during the team's summer practice sessions where one day Warren found Kalin leading the squad through shooting drills before the coaches had even arrived, something Warren had never seen before in her 20-plus years of coaching.
"That's what Jacqui Kalin brings. You just can't put a price tag on leadership. That was the blessing and it's so good to have her (back)," said Warren.
Kalin, who hopes to be an extension of Warren on the floor, feels even more acclimated for that leadership role and has a renewed passion for the game after seeing things from a different perspective last season.
"Last year was very tough to swallow but looking back I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to just learn about the game of basketball," said Kalin. "I took a lot away from it and now being back this year, I feel blessed to be a part of this team."
Kalin's court savvy will take on added importance as the Panthers navigate what Warren considers to be the toughest non-conference slate in her tenure at UNI. The Panthers, who finished 19-15 and 9-9 in the MVC last year, face six BCS teams and nine squads that reached the postseason last year, five of which earned NCAA tourney bids.
"I think (the non-conference schedule) is a recipe for a lot of gray hairs," said Warren, though she believes the steep learning curve should speed the maturation process of her mostly green unit and leave it better equipped for conference play.
"We will be tested early. We're excited about that. It's a great opportunity for our kids to jump in, especially our young kids and get their feet wet," said Warren. "We will see what we're made of early."
Fortunately, the Panthers have a quartet of battle-tested veterans to ease the transition as Kalin is joined by fellow senior starters Mercedees Morgan and Amber Kirschbaum, along with junior Jess McDowell.
"We have great leadership in our seniors. We will rely heavily on those four kids with their experience," said Warren, who must replace the graduated senior trio of K.K. Armstrong, Rachel Madrigal and Katelin Oney, which accounted for 61 percent of the team's scoring last season and led the Panthers to the finals of the Women's Basketball Invitational.
Kirschbaum posted 9.2 points a game, fourth best on the team, and a team-high 7.1 rebounds a year ago. Morgan netted seven points per contest, fifth on the squad, but is still recovering from a knee injury that sidelined her at the end of last season.
"Mercedees has made great strides but her minutes will probably be limited early," said Warren.
Sophomore guard Brooke Brown started 13 games for the Panthers while second-year guards Brittni Donaldson and Sharnae Lamar also saw some significant minutes in the backcourt. Jen Keitel, a 6-foot-3 redshirt freshman, will back up Kirschbaum at the 5 and possibly play at the 4 as well.
"(Jen) gives us a low-post presence offensively that we didn't have on a consistent basis a year ago. She takes up a lot of room defensively. We will call upon her early and often," said Warren, who again expects the MVC to be a tough conference top to bottom.
Warren pegs 2011-12 MVC tournament champion Creighton as the team to beat, with Illinois State and Wichita State close behind as all three squads bring back four of their respective starting fives from last season.
"It's going to be a tough league. You have to be able to take care of business at home and be able to sneak a couple out on the road. If you can do those things it puts you in pretty good shape to compete for a conference championship," said Warren, who expects nothing less from her squad.
Warren believes last year's postseason run through the WBI - which included three victories on the road and a strong challenge against the University of Minnesota in the final - played a crucial role in establishing momentum for this season and was a great confidence-builder for her players, including the ones on the bench.
"For the kids that were redshirting, just to see that and be a part of that - that pays nothing but dividends," said Warren. "Now you know you have the makings to put runs together and put yourself in position to be successful. That's what these young ladies work toward every single day."
That level of dedication has shown Warren the potential with this year's team and although they're young, that will not be an excuse for her group.
"I'm not worried about this team's hunger. We're young but they understand what has been done the past couple of years and the tradition that we're trying to create in this program. They will compete and they will compete in every game, I can guarantee you that," said Warren.
Who better to carry on that tradition and sense of desire than Kalin, a player that epitomizes the tough work ethic Warren has worked to establish and understands battling through adversity on many levels. Just as her coach came to fully realize months down the road, Kalin enters her final season in a Panthers uniform with a firm belief that this is where she's meant to be.
"I truly believe that things happen for a reason," said Kalin. "In the moment you never wish (an injury) like that, but I've just been so blessed to have so much support.
"To have an opportunity to lace it up and be back on the court is really special. I just feel lucky to be here again and to have the opportunity to play with this team."