BELLEVILLE — The Southwestern Illinois College Blue Storm, who enters the 2012-13 season led by the top-point guard in the nation in sophomore Janelle Cannon, is commanding national attention by being ranked 18th in the NJCAA Division I poll.
So why is veteran coach Mike Juenger a bundle of nerves?
For starters, there are 12 young freshmen on the Blue Storm roster.
"This team, by March, could be great. It's just going to take us a little while because they aren't used to games. This isn't high school anymore," Juenger said. "The only ones who have played college basketball are Janelle, Crissa (Washington) and Danielle (Duncan), so its going to take time.
"We've got the best player in the country in Janelle (Cannon) and teams are going to be out for us. This is probably as nervous as I've been to start the season simply because we haven't played a game and our first opponent (Mineral Area College) would have already played four times.''
Juenger won't have to wait much longer to unveil his young but talented Blue Storm. Finishing ninth in the NJCAA Division I Tournament a year ago, SWIC opens its season Monday at 5:30 p.m. when it hosts always tough Mineral Area College.
Cannon, who has committed to attend the University of Louisville, averaged 16 points, nine assists and nine rebounds a game last year and will lead SWIC. Washington, a 5-8 guard from Louisville, has improved and will play a key role, while Duncan, a 5-8 shooting guard, is attempting to make a comeback at the age of 26.
The top of a list of recruits Juenger has called his most talented freshmen class ever are 6-2 center Sorriyah Ranger (Skokie), 6-2 center Breana Baker (Peoria) and LaTeesha Deloach (St. Louis), but there are others.
Highly touted freshman point guard Asia Nichols (Louisville) has been lost for the season with a knee injury, while freshman Abigail Schmitt (Trenton) is also battling injury and may miss a few games.
"Plus we've got Adrianna McNeal (Hamilton, Ohio) who may be one of the most talented kids I've coached. She just has to learn to finish," Juenger said. "Mone'y (Black) is battling a bad back right now, but she's also very talented.
"But this isn't high school any more. You battle and you sometimes get banged and bruised. But you've got to learn to play through it a little bit.''
While the Blue Storm freshmen may need so time to adjust to the college basketball style, the 5-9 Cannon will be SWIC's go-to girl once again as they begin their quest to return to the NJCAA Division I Tournament.
"It's hard for Janelle because she is so far advanced and the others are just coming along," Juenger said. "A player like Crissa (Washington) didn't play at all last year and she might start this year.
"She is outstanding on the offensive end. She just needs to play better defense.''
Other freshmen who are battling for playing time are Brea Gegg (Florissant, Mo.), Megkinzie Carter (Bethalto), LaShawndra Hardy (East St. Louis) and Bailey Setzekorn (Coulterville).
"We have plenty of kids who can score. I just worry about our perimeter shooters. But as far as the number of kids who drive and take it to the basket, we're as deep as we've ever been," Juenger said.
"I'd like us to be a little more selfish at times. I've seen us pass up a 5-foot jumper to pass it out for a 20-footer. We have to recognize what are good shots and which ones are not.''
Overall, Juenger thinks this is one of his most athletic teams. But will it become one of his best?
"The team that finished second in the nation had the great player in Peaches (Anderson) and a number of players who not only knew their roles but accepted them" Juenger said.
"The talent is here this year. It's going to come down to can these kids accept playing 15 minutes one night and 32 the next if it will make the team better in the long run.''
Contract reporter Dean Criddle at 239-2661 or email@example.com