Before the 2012-13 season began nearly two months ago, Southwestern Illinois College women's basketball coach Mike Juenger openly admitted that he didn't know what to expect from his Blue Storm squad.
What Juenger did know was that he had the top point guard in the nation in Janelle Cannon returning to lead a squad that featured 11 freshmen and a 26-year-old perimeter shooter in Danielle Duncan, who hadn't played organized basketball for several years.
Still, SWIC opens the post-holiday portion of its schedule on Monday at Rend Lake College in Ina with a sparkling 8-1 record and ranked 16th in the NJCAA Division I poll.
"I knew that athletically we were as good as we had been in several years. I just didn't know how long it would take for the them to blend together as a team,'' Juenger said. "There is a transition period for some kids when they go from being the best player on their high school teams to being away from home and maybe not playing as much as they would like in college.
"Looking back now I wish we wouldn't have opened with Mineral Area (College). That was a tough opening game with 11 freshmen. But we've gotten better each game, and I think we've got a chance to be one of the top teams in the nation.''
Cannon, who has signed to attend Louisville University next year, has been a major reason for the Blue Storm's success. The 5-9 All-American is among the leaders in the nation in points, steals and assists while providing a calming influence for her young Blue Storm teammates.
"Janelle has done a great job in leading this team,'' Juenger said. "Teams come in trying to stop her and when the night is over she's still very effective. What makes her so good is that she can beat you in so many ways. If they take away one part her game on a given night she'll score on an offensive rebound or she'll get a bunch of steals.''
Duncan, who played her prep basketball at O'Fallon, has also played well and along with another sophomore -- Crissa Washington -- has been a leader to the freshmen class.
"Danielle can flat out shoot the basketball and she's not shy about it. That's good,'' Juenger said. "We just need others like Crissa (Washington) and a few of the freshmen to be able to step up a little more.''
Juenger is also hoping to get more offensive production from freshmen Sorriyah Ranger and Adrianna McNeal.
"I think Adrianna (McNeal) is a big time player. She's a great athlete who can get up and down the floor and at 5-10 with long arms could be a great defensive presence for us.'' Juenger said. "We've just got to continue to work hard and improve as the season goes on.
"Because we're ranked and one of the top teams in our league, teams are going to be out to get us in the second half of the season.''
SWIC enters its game at Rend Lake on an eight-game winning streak after its opening loss to Mineral Area. The Blue Storm is also 3-0 in the Great Rivers Athletic Conference.
SWIC plays at Lakeland College on Jan. 12 before returning home on Jan. 16 to battle Lincoln Trail College at 5:30 p.m.
Juenger also announced this week that freshman Abigail Schmitt from Trenton (Wesclin) has left the team for medical reasons. Schmitt was leading the nation in 3-point field goal percentage at 60 percent.
Contact reporter Dean Criddle at 239-2661 or firstname.lastname@example.org