As Mike Juenger begins his 20th season as the head women’s basketball coach at Southwestern Illinois College, he does so with a new lease on life.
Forty pounds lighter thanks to an improved diet after health issues last year, Juenger said he is in the best condition — both mentally and physically — that he’s been in years heading into a season.
Now if only Juenger can get his basketball program back in shape.
With only a combined nine wins during the past two years, SWIC is in need of a jump-start as it prepares for the 2016-17 season opener on Thursday at Lewis and Clark Community College in Godfrey.
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“You recruit kids you believe are good kids who like basketball and sometimes you end up with kids who don’t want to go to class or turn out not to be very good at basketball. That’s been the case with some of the kids we’ve brought in the last two years,” Juenger said. “Last year we had a player who averaged 26 points a game and because of academics, she couldn’t play. That’s a lot of points in women’s basketball to have to give up. It’s a lot of points to give up at any level. We will see what this season brings.”
If SWIC is to eclipse the nine wins of the last two years during the upcoming season, it will have to do it without highly touted freshman Ta’Tayana Outlaw of Clarksville, Tenn. One of the better high school players in the state of Tennessee last season, Outlaw suffered a torn Achilles tendon on Sunday and will miss the entire season.
In addition, another prize recruit, former Breese Central standout Alicia Book will miss the first few weeks of the season after having the screws and plate removed from her surgically repaired ankle.
A key member on the Central team that placed second in the Class 2A state finals two years ago, the 5-foot-7 Book sat out her entire senior season after suffering the injury in the preseason a year ago.
Only 28 wins shy of 400 for his career at SWIC, Juenger has compiled a record of 372-228 during the past 19 years with the Blue Storm. Juenger has guided the team to the National Junior College Division I finals five times, with the 2000 team placing second in the nation.
Heading into the 2016-17 season, he isn’t thinking about taking this team to the national finals. Instead, Juenger is seeking a few wins early to build some confidence then maybe contending for the championship in the rugged Great Rivers Athletic Conference.
“It all depends on how hard you want to work and so far since we started three or four weeks ago, these girls have worked very hard. I like what I see and if we continue work and get better as the year goes on we’ve got a chance to be a successful season,” Juenger said. “We’ve only got four sophomores on our roster and I’m hoping those four players have a little chip on their shoulders after what happened last year. The rest are freshmen. Again, time will tell and alot depends on the amount of work they put in, but we have some talent.”
The top returnees are guards Maddie Sheraka, Analiese Osborne and Kayla Moore. Sophomore Kayleigh Thurwalker returns at a forward spot.
While the loss of Outlaw and Book will hurt the Blue Storm’s chances of contending for the GRAC title, several freshmen could also make an impact.
Juenger has high hopes for Sam Woods, a 5-10 forward who played at Triad, along with 5-10 post player Tennaye Green from Mascoutah and 6-1 center Zaria Valle from Hazelwood Central High School in St. Louis.
“I’m telling you this right now, if Zaria (Valle) continues to work and improve, by the time she graduates from here in two years she will be one of the most highly recruited post players in the nation. She is an absolute steal for us,” Juenger said. “She’s long and needs to get stronger, but her potential is through the roof.”
“Sam Woods didn’t get a lot of attention at Triad because they had two other great players But she’s 5-10 and can really shoot the basketball. Tennaye (Green) is a rebounding machine. We need to work on her offense, but she’s going to really help us.”
In freshmen guards J’Ava Brock from Cahokia, Jasmine Johnson from Clarksville, Tenn., and Alliyah St. John from Belleville West, Juenger has three super quick point guards who run the floor and figure to create havoc on defense.
Sharpshooting Danielle Hawthorne, a Belleville East graduate, could also be a key at the off guard spot.
Juenger expects the same group of teams — Wabash Valley, John A. Logan College and Vincennes — to be the powers in the GRAC.
“From what I see there doesn’t seem to be many teams in the GRAC with a lot of size. A lot of teams have 5-10 players who are athletes and run the floor well,” Juenger said. “I think we’ve got good shooters on this team and we’ve got several good, quick and athletic guards out front. The key is being able to rebound and hold our own in the post. We’re just going to keep working hard and hope for the best.”