College Sports

McKendree women’s basketball team seeks improvement under new coach Kerkhoff

McKendree University women’s basketball coach Kari Kerkhoff wants to play up-tempo, but those plans might be idled in her first season with the Bearcats.

Kerkhoff said the Bearcats, who were 2-24 overall and 1-17 in the Great Lakes Valley Conference last season, will have to rely on being solid defensively. They graduated their leading scorer, Edwardsville native Caty Ponce (11.4 points, 38 3-pointers), and their second-leading scorer, Gabrielle Williams (10.8 points), did not return to the team.

That leaves 6-foot senior Jameeka Bouie as the top returning scorer (9.6 points, 26 3-pointers) and rebounder (4.6). Bouie is followed by 5-9 senior Danielle Amann-Stewart (6.6 points), of Mascoutah, 6-0 junior Emily Pusheck (6.5 points) and 5-10 junior Amber Alexander (5.7 points). Amann-Stewart is recovering from an injury that will sideline her until at least Christmas.

“Our biggest struggle is just having consistency on that offensive end,” Kerkhoff said. “I think that’s something that we’re going to have to look for every game. It’s going to be our biggest issue, I think. That’s why I’m emphasizing the defensive end as much as possible. If we can be a really good defensive team, hopefully we can be in those ballgames at the end.

“The kids have been doing a good job of buying into the defensive side. That’s going to help us in the long run. Defense is always going to be an emphasis, but at some point, I want to be able to get to run a little bit more. I’m just not sure how much we’re going to be able to do that with this team this year.”

McKendree will open the season at 7 p.m. Friday against visiting Lake Superior State. The Bearcats will play Hillsdale College at 3 p.m. Saturday.

Kerkhoff, a native of Manning, Iowa, was hired March 18 when Melissa Ringhausen, the Bearcats’ coach for 18 seasons, was hired as the full-time associate athletics director.

Kerkhoff worked seven seasons as an assistant coach under Paula Buscher: the last three at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and the previous four at Bradley. Kerkhoff also played under Buscher at Nebraska Omaha in the 2000-01 and 2001-02 seasons.

“You know, it’s a little different,” Kerkhoff said of looking up and not seeing Buscher standing nearby. “But I walked in and after the first week of practice, I was kind of like, ‘OK, I’m doing this thing.’ I didn’t even think twice about it. But yes, after nine years of being with Paula, it’s definitely different, that’s for sure.”

Plenty of experience

Ten of the Bearcats’ 14 players are juniors or seniors, so acclimation to the college level is largely in place as Kerkhoff takes the reins of the program.

“We’re junior- and senior-loaded,” Kerkhoff said.

All will be utilized.

Pusheck and twin sister Ellie Puscheck, also 6-0, will be expected to patrol the paint. In their first two seasons, they typically were not on the floor at the same time. Emily played more frequently than Ellie, who averaged 3.8 points.

“I think we have good post play,” Kerkhoff said. “I’m looking for the Pusheck twins to come in and (provide) that offensive mindset for us. They also are good shot-blockers on the defensive side, so I’m going to lean on them quite a bit. I like Ellie’s inside game and I like Emily’s outside game a little bit more. She’s a very consistent outside shooter.”

Other returning players include 5-7 senior Kelsee Ennis, 5-7 senior Kacey Johnson, 5-10 junior Shannon McGinnis, 5-9 senior Ashley Klass and 5-9 junior Charley Lett, 5-9 sophomore Abby Smith and 6-3 sophomore Shauniera Wilson. Newcomers are 5-9 sophomore Halle Devoe, who did not play last season, and 5-10 freshman Jordan Morton.

“In the guard position, I’m looking at Kelsee Ennis, and a new face – she’s been here, but hasn’t played – is Halle Devoe,” Kerkhoff said. “They play with so much energy and play the game the right way. They’re diving on the floor, they’re getting us extra possessions. That’s the culture I’m trying to build this year. With those ladies, the twins and Shannon McGinnis, people are not going to want to play us because of how hard we play.”

Ennis started 15 games last season and averaged 4.7 points with 34 steals.

Bouie is a talented offensive player who continues to work to improve her defensive game. Klass and Johnson also are expected to make regular contributions, and Wilson could be a capable replacement for Ellie Pusheck in the post. Klass is one of the team’s best shooters.

Kerkhoff expects Morton to be a factor in her first season.

“She’s done some nice things and I would like to get her in the rotation just to give her some more experience,” Kerkhoff said. “She’s a workhorse, a very strong rebounder. I need to get her more offensive-minded, but she can compete for a starting spot.”

Alexander and Devoe bring the Bearcats length, pace and athleticism.

“We need to get (Alexander) a little bit under control, but she’s definitely one of those looking to contend for a (starting) spot as well,” Kerkhoff said. “Devoe is like Amber Alexander – long and athletic. She plays 100 mph and we’ve got to get her to slow down the game. It’s just a matter of getting her out there and getting experience on the court.”

Going deep

Kerkhoff expects to be able to use as many as nine players on a regular basis.

“That’s definitely enough,” she said. “I’ve talked to the ladies and I’ve even talked to future recruits, ‘I want you to compete in practice. Everybody is going to have a role. You may not like your role, but you have to, come game day, accept that role.’ That’s a maturity process.

“If you want to be that sixth player or get in that starting lineup, you’ve got to compete for it every day and challenge for that. We’ve made progress in that area.”

Kerkhoff said the season will be “a process.”

“I’m competitive; I want to win,” Kerkhoff said. “We need to continue to get better. We don’t have overall goals when it comes to record and conference, but we have game goals. When we start to do some of those things, that will help with the Ws.”

David Wilhelm: 618-239-2665, @DavidMWilhelm