Baranczyk turns Drake into a winner

AP FILE PHOTO • From left: Caitlin Ingle, Lizzy Wendell, head coach Jennie Baranczyk and Cortni Rush pose for a portrait during Drake’s women’s basketball media day on Oct. 20, 2016, in Des Moines. Drake became perhaps the unlikeliest team to enter the AP Top 25 this season when it sneaked in at No. 25 on Monday.

AP FILE PHOTO • From left: Caitlin Ingle, Lizzy Wendell, head coach Jennie Baranczyk and Cortni Rush pose for a portrait during Drake’s women’s basketball media day on Oct. 20, 2016, in Des Moines. Drake became perhaps the unlikeliest team to enter the AP Top 25 this season when it sneaked in at No. 25 on Monday.

DES MOINES — In the early days of women’s college basketball, Drake was a model of mid-major success.

Homegrown coach Jennie Baranczyk and the upstart Bulldogs have finally made Des Moines a hotbed for hoops again.

Drake became perhaps the unlikeliest team to enter the Top 25 this season when it slipped in at No. 25 on Monday.

But the Bulldogs (20-4, 13-0 MVC) have blossomed into a force in Baranczyk’s fifth season, rolling to the best start in Missouri Valley history. Drake has played so well that it could even make the NCAA Tournament with an at-large bid if it doesn’t win the league tournament.

“Does it surprise me? No. Not necessarily. But I do think we’ve matured a lot,” Baranczyk said of Drake, which hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game in 15 years. “I knew this team was going to be special. So what we wanted to do was say ‘Let’s just enjoy this.’ Because we’ve been through a lot.”

So has the program since the glory days of Bulldogs basketball, which included multiple 20-wins seasons and an Elite Eight appearance in 1982.

Baranczyk followed the Bulldogs as a kid growing up just outside of Des Moines, where she starred at prep powerhouse Dowling Catholic She was recruited heavily by Drake under then-coach Lisa Bluder. But Baranczyk followed Bluder to Iowa, where she was a three-time All-Big Ten pick.

Still, the idea of Drake as a nationally prominent program always stuck with Baranczyk, and that notion was reinforced when the Bulldogs reached the Sweet Sixteen in 2002 when Baranczyk was a sophomore with the Hawkeyes.

“Growing up here, Drake was the best school in Iowa,” Baranczyk said. “I had that kind of vision in my head.”

Baranczyk started coaching as an assistant for two seasons at Kansas State under longtime coach Deb Patterson. She then jumped to Marquette, where she picked up another mentor in Terri Mitchell.

A short stint in Colorado that began with the Buffaloes leaving the Big 12 for the Pac-12 gave Baranczyk yet another experience to draw upon once she felt she was ready to be a head coach. Her shot came in 2012 at Drake — but Baranczyk was also just two weeks away from giving birth to her first child.

Undaunted, Baranczyk and her husband drove 10 hours from Boulder to Des Moines for her interview because she couldn’t fly. Baranczyk got the job, and in the first few weeks she landed two future standouts: forward Lizzy Wendell and guard Caitlin Ingle, who would prove instrumental in turning Drake around.

“She has made me such a better student of the game,” Ingle said. “She lets us play to our strengths. She doesn’t handcuff any player on the court.”

Baranczyk started with an ambitious five-year plan to make Drake a Valley contender. But with Wendell and Ingle still in high school, Drake struggled to an 11-20 record in her first season.

The Bulldogs cracked .500 in 2013-14, and Wendell was named the league’s freshman of the year. Drake won 20 games for the first time in seven seasons in 2014-15, and Ingle joined Wendell as a first-team all-league selection.

Last year, the Bulldogs recorded their first back-to-back 20-win seasons since 2002 — right around the time that the idea of Drake as a winner made such an impression on Baranczyk.

“I knew that (Baranczyk’s) vision was something that fit me,” Wendell said.

As it turned out, Baranczyk’s plan worked better than even she fully expected.

Wendell, Ingle and the Bulldogs have pulled away from the rest of the Valley, winning their last three games by an average of over 36 points.

Wendell leads the nation with 102 straight games with at least 10 points and currently leads the Valley with 21.7 points per game. Ingle is second nationally with 7.8 assists per game and freshman Becca Hittner is tops in the Valley in 3-point shooting percentage at 53.7.

Coaches with Baranczyk’s resume and potential typically get poached by high-major programs — like Bluder did by Iowa in 1999 — every spring.

Baranczyk said that because of her strong relationship with athletic director Sandy Hatfield-Clubb and an administration that shares her vision, she isn’t looking to leave.

“This is a great, great fit,” Baranczyk said. “I get that things can change. I get that. This is the dream school that I’ve always had (in my mind). I literally feel like I’m living my dream.”