AMES - What Chelsea Poppens did last year for the Iowa State women's basketball team was remarkable. The lightly recruited forward out of Aplington-Parkersburg was the only player in the Big 12 Conference to average a double-double.
And on that list of players who did not accomplish that feat was Baylor All-American center Brittney Griner.
Poppens' efforts helped get Iowa State into the NCAA tournament again, but if the Cyclones want to get back to the dance and move past the first round, the team will need more than just big efforts from Poppens.
T-R PHOTO BY TROY HYDE
Iowa State women’s basketball coach Bill Fennelly is starting his 18th season as the Cyclones head man in Ames. Fennelly welcomes back four of the team’s top five leading scorers from last year’s 18-13 squad which reached the NCAA tournament.
"We need to make more 3s, we need to be better free throw shooters and we need to turn the ball over less," said ISU women's coach Bill Fennelly on Wednesday at Iowa State Women's Basketball Media Day at the Sukup Basketball Complex. "We are going to be playing in the best league in the nation, so we cannot afford to have many off nights."
Fennelly begins his 18th season in Ames. He is 372-173 during his time at Iowa State and has 538 wins as a collegiate coach. The Cyclones have averaged more than 21 wins during their time under Fennelly, and the Dean of the Big 12 Conference has had 11 20-win seasons in Ames and won at least 25 games seven times.
"This is my 18th year and I don't think I have ever been as happy to represent Iowa State than I am this year," Fennelly said. "The energy on campus and from our fan base right now is great. And I am not talking just women's basketball. "
Poppens returns as the program's best player, but Fennelly also welcomes back four of his five leading scorers from last year with Lauren Mansfield being the only graduated athlete not back this season.
Junior Hallie Christofferson is back after averaging 10.2 points and six rebounds last season. Fennelly needs the former Exira standout to be much more aggressive this season.
"We have to have and expect those numbers from last year to be improved upon this year," he said. "She thought she was hurting the team at times last year when she took shots. I am telling her now that I will tell her if she takes a bad shot."
Christofferson's biggest asset may be that she can be used in multiple positions. Fennelly said she will play a lot at the 3 and the 4 this year. And where she plays more will depend on Anna Prins and her ability to stay healthy.
"Anna is as healthy as she has ever been for us, but that doesn't mean anything yet," Fennelly said. "She has missed more than 150 practices during her career. We need her to be around this year."
The 6-foot-7 Prins hopes to play a big role in her senior season. For the first time in her career, she did not stay in Ames over the summer. She headed home and even spent 10 days in Poland.
"It was nothing anyone at Iowa State did, but I just felt like I needed to go a different direction this summer," Prins said. "I wanted to do what I could to stay healthy. It was a different approach, but it was refreshing to be away in Poland, and now I come back in a much better frame of mind."
The Cyclones' third leading scorer last year was sophomore Nikki Moody, who averaged 10 points per game and also had a team-high 133 assists.
"She had 133 assists, but she also had 110 turnovers, which is way too many," Fennelly said. "If the biggest honor she has here at Iowa State is that she made the All-Freshman squad then neither one of us did our jobs to try to make her better. She has got to be better this year for us. She needs to shoot better and she needs to cut down on those turnovers."
The Cyclones were ranked preseason No. 22 by Lindy's Magazine after going 18-13 last year. However, six other teams in the Big 12 Conference are ranked higher, including top-ranked and defending champion Baylor.
The league also welcomes new members West Virginia and TCU. Fennelly said the Mountaineers are a top 20 team and will be a half-court version of Texas A&M, while TCU will look to score more and be much more up-tempo.
"When people say the Big 12 is the toughest league in the nation, they are telling the truth," Fennelly said. "Our league could put 7-8 teams in the tourney this year. You better be ready to play every night. We'll have to take care of the ball and do the little things."
The Cyclones may also have to repeat their home court performance from last season when they went 14-3.
"It may be even bigger this year," Fennelly said. "When there is a chance to win at home, you have to win. Because there are not going to be many more chances to make it up. You need to get on a run at home if you can. We'd like to find a way to go 7-2 at home this year in league play."
Poppens was recently named to the preseason All-Big 12 team after earning unanimous first-team honors last season. She was second in the Big 12 with 14 double-doubles and ranked 13th nationally in rebounding.
"She defines what we're about here at ISU, and she has a chance to have a monster season," Fennelly said. "When you are mentioned in the same breath as Brittney Griner, that is saying something. She is the face of our program right now."
Poppens believes this year's Cyclone team has a lot of potential. And she hopes the talent that is around her is enough to get past the first round of the NCAA tournament.
"I think we have plenty of promise for this year, and I think we can get past the first round," Poppens said. "We need to work on chemistry, but the talent is there. This year doesn't feel that much different. I feel pressure to get better and improve though. But that's the small-town way. You have to work to be seen."
The Cyclones are fairly healthy to start the season. Only two players dealt with offseason injuries to a point where they were out of action.
And the only player who would not play if the Cyclones played a game tonight would be former South Tama County standout Madison Baier, who had foot surgery in April and then suffered a setback Labor Day weekend when she rolled her ankle.
Amanda Zimmerman also had surgery this offseason but is currently back practicing with the team, even though Fennelly said she has lots of catching up to do. Baier is reduced to riding an exercise bike for most of the practices.
"It's difficult being the only player not practicing on the floor," said Baier, who will be a freshmen at Iowa State this year. "It's hard being on the bike all the time."
The Cyclones' roster features a balance through all four classes. They have three seniors, three juniors, three sophomores and three freshmen. Moody is the only guard on the team with any kind of real varsity experience.
"The strength of this team is definitely the post play," Fennelly said. "All the guards have to do is shoot it when you're open, don't turn it over and defend once in a while. That's it. Just don't hurt us."