A year ago, the 2017-18 season for the Althoff girls basketball team was kind of like learning to walk.
In the upcoming 2018-19 season, their second under Brianna Ankenbrandt, the Crusaders will be looking to run.
Althoff was scheduled to open its season Thursday night with a game against Carterville at the Lady Wildcats Thanksgiving Tournament in Salem. Salem has not yet made a decision if the games will be postponed because of the winter storm that hit the region Thursday. the Crusaders are hoping to take the court for the first time Saturday when it is scheduled to play twice, against Teutopolis and later Highland.
The Crusaders return four starters from a squad that went 15-14 a year ago. It was a young team Ankenbrandt says she purposely reined in at times as both the players, along with herself, learned to compete at the varsity level.
This season, the plan is to turn those players loose.
“We were so young last year, we did not want to throw too much at the girls all at once,” said Ankenbrandt, who saw her team win five straight last February before its season ended with a Class 2A regional semifinal loss to Nashville. “But by the postseason we were really playing some good basketball.
“This year, with the girls being a year older and the team a little bit deeper, we’re really going to focus on the defensive side with a lot of pressure and attacking the basketball. Try and turn that defense into offense.”
Four starters return, led by a trio of guards in 5-foot-7 senior twins Tiffani and Gabby Siekmann and 5-9 junior Katie Wemhoener.
Tiffani Siekmann led the Crusaders in scoring a year ago at 11.5 points per game on her way to earning All-South Seven Conference Most Valuable Player honors. Gabby Siekmann was second at 7.6. Wemhoener ranked third at 7.2. The latter two also were all-conference selections for Althoff, which finished 7-3 in league play and in second place behind 9-1 Carbondale.
“They’ve (the Siekmanns) been with me for four years, so they know what to expect of them and what I want them to do for the team,” said Ankenbrandt, who coached Althoff’s fresh-soph team for two years before moving to varsity a year ago. “They’re great leaders on the court and have done a good job working on their game as a whole, not just their shooting.”
Sophomore forward Anya Davis (5-10) is the Crusaders other returning starter. The fifth starting spot will likely come down to either Mary Wessel (a 5-9, senior guard) or Nariah Parks (a 5-5, sophomore guard) as Ankenbrandt will look to run a four-guard lineup.
Providing depth are guards Claire Franke (5-5, jr.) and Anbra Jones (5-3, sophomore) along with a pair of six-foot juniors in Karinna Gall and Payton Jackson.
“With this group, I don’t think we lose anything off the bench and that’s going to be important considering how I want us to play.” said Ankenbrandt. “For the first time since I’ve been here, we’re pretty athletic and long. Even our inside players handle the ball pretty well, although they might try to do it more than I’d like them too.”
For the third consecutive season, an appearance at the state volleyball tournament prevented the Crusaders from beginning full-roster practices until well after most of its counterparts around the state.
Monday marked the first time Wemhoener, Gall, Franke, Wessel, Davis and Jackson had participated in basketball practice, following Althoff’s second-place finish at last weekend’s Class 3A state tournament finish in Normal.
And while their hoops skills might be a bit rusty, there is a certainly a positive to having those kinds of players on the team.
“I know it stinks for them not to have much time off,” said Ankenbrandt. “But these girls are competitors who expect to win and want to win, and we know they’ll bring it with them onto the basketball court.”
Following the Salem Tournament, which concludes Saturday, Nov. 24, when Althoff will take on Centralia and then play host to Wildcats, the Crusaders will finally play their home opener on Monday, Nov. 26 when they host Marion.
“I’m really excited to have this group back for another year,” said Ankenbrandt. “Looking forward to see what they are capable of.
“I really think they’ve got a lot more in them and have the potential to be a really good team that can go far.”