Nick Knolhoff led Althoff’s girls basketball team through a successful summer season, defeating the bigger-school likes of Belleville West, Mascoutah, Freeburg and others.
And with the top two scorers and top two rebounders expected back from the previous winter’s prep season, he had no reason to think the success wouldn’t carry over into his first season as the Crusaders’ head coach.
But the the lineup he inherited upon his hiring last May will not be the same one he puts on a court at the Morton Thanksgiving Tournament next week. It won’t even be the same team that won seven of 10 summer league games just a couple months ago.
“I had 10 girls this summer in the SWIC league, now three have transferred and two are out with injuries,” Knolhoff said. “Losing five of the 10 you thought would be dressed for varsity is tough.”
Last year’s assists leader Rachel Collins transferred to Belleville East while top rebounder Divine Lane moved on to O’Fallon, as did sophomore Taje Ruffin, who figured prominently in Knolhoff’s plans for 2015-16.
Returning starter Rachel Mertens is out for the season with a torn ACL and Amanda Kaltwasser, who projected as the Crusaders’ starting point guard, will get an MRI on an injured shin later this week.
On one hand, it’s a tough spot because we’re low on depth, but I’m in a good spot because I have one senior and all juniors I’ll have with me for two years in a row. I can put it in my own stuff.
Nick Knolhoff, Althoff first-year head girls basketball coach
“We’re doing a lot of conditioning,” Knolhoff said. “Basically what we want is to stay out of foul trouble, run the offense, and make the opponent play a little defense, too. We want to be low scoring.”
Key pieces return, including Kyleigh Vaught, whose 13.8 points per game as a sophomore led Althoff a year ago. Maggie Riemer, whose 9.3 points and 5.5 rebounds per game each ranked second on the team, also returns at the other guard.
“Maggie is a mismatch,” Knolhoff said. “She can play at the post or away from the basket.”
Senior Kristin Stover, who saw limited playing time last season, will replace the injured Kaltwasser at point guard. On the posts will be juniors Ellie Martz (10 points and two rebounds in limited minutes) and Emily Myatt (2.7 ppg, 2.5 rpg).
“Myatt has got the smarts, maybe not all athletically, but she knows where to be and is really consistent with her 15-foot jump shots,” said Knolhoff.
Knolhoff will supplement the bench with sophomores Andersyn Watts and Addie Burris and freshman twins Gabby and Tiffani Siekmann.
Where the roster losses will be felt most is on overall team depth, Knolhoff said. On the other hand, an updated roster and comparative inexperience gives a first-year coach an opportunity to implement his own strategies.
“On one hand, it’s a tough spot because we’re low on depth, but I’m in a good spot because I have one senior and all juniors I’ll have with me for two years in a row,” he said. “I can put it in my own stuff.”
Knolhoff’s “stuff” will include a 2-3 zone defense in the fashion of Syracuse head men’s coach Jim Boeheim.
A sort of hybrid of man and zone defense, the 2-3 zone is intended to keep opponents out of the lane, to spread out opposing shooters for longer shots, and keep teams without a lot of depth — like the Crusaders — out of foul trouble.
“Learning it is coming along slowly,” Knolhoff said. “It’s hard to pick up the man-to-man principles, but still be in a zone. You kind of have to play man within your zone and sometimes you have to rotate if they penetrate your zone. But we’ve still got some time before we play and we’re getting there.”
Knolhoff also hopes a tough schedule also will work in the Crusaders’ favor by the time regional tournament time rolls around. The 13-15 Crusaders took Mascoutah to overtime of a regional final last season, but haven’t won one in Class 3A in five years.
A Class 2A regional field gives them a good shot at ending the drought, especially with what Knolhoff says they’ll learn from a regular season schedule against mostly bigger programs. In fact, the season begins Friday against Morton, the defending Class 3A state champion.
“We’re sticking our nose in there with the 3A state champs and see what we have,” said Knolhoff of next weekend’s Morton Tournament field. “We’re playing two 4A schools and we’re playing the 3A champs and we’ll play Peoria-Richwoods, which lost in the sectional finals to Morton .... And here comes little 2A Althoff.
“This is an opportunity. Before we get into conference play, I see this as the pre-season. We’ll learn a lot and see where we are.”