Northland adjusts to injury adversity to return to national tournament
Just two games into the season, the Northland Community & Technical College women's basketball team had to make an adjustment.
The Pioneers' starting point guard, Janie Wunderlich, suffered a season-ending ACL tear.
"We had to figure out how to play our best basketball," Northland coach Shannon Nelson said. "We were dealing with injuries, and you go through some growing pains. We also schedule non-conference as tough as we can."
The less-than-ideal start didn't completely derail the Pioneers, who have become a perennial power under Nelson, who's in her eighth season as head coach at Northland.
Northland, despite starting the year 3-2, takes a 22-5 record into the NJCAA Division III national tournament. The No. 5-seeded Pioneers will play No. 4 Montgomery out of Maryland in the first round at 3 p.m. Thursday in Rockford, Ill.
Northland will play in the national tournament for the eighth time in nine years. The Pioneers won at least 20 games for the seventh-straight season and have a chance to win 25 for the sixth-straight season.
The Pioneers won the program's first national title in 2014.
Northland has a veteran roster, led by the 6-foot-1 post tandem of Megan Swedberg and Brooke Heggie.
Swedberg, a sophomore who played at Waubun High School, averages 19.3 points and 11.4 rebounds, while Heggie, a freshman from Alexandria, Minn., averages 12.2 points and 10.1 rebounds.
"For the past few years, we've had really good size," Nelson said. "(Swedberg and Heggie) are physical and skilled. We've been an offense that has gone from inside-out, especially once one of our best guards went down for the season.
"The makeup of this team is similar to what we've had in the past. We tweak things a little bit every year. We like to tweak our system to our players, not recruit to fit players into our system."
Wunderlich, the injured freshman from Perham, averaged 12.0 points and 4.5 assists before her injury. Nelson said she'll redshirt and have two seasons with the Pioneers remaining.
Northland features two other players from Northwest Minnesota averaging double digits. Sophomore forward Madison Stenzel, of Gonvick, Minn., averages 11.8 points. Sophomore guard Emily Anderson, of Middle River, Minn., averages 11.6 points.
Northland finished national runner-up two years ago and seventh last season. Those teams were led by the play of two-time All-American Sha'Ron Miller. Miller now is one of the first options off the bench for NCAA Division I Grand Canyon.
"We have had our ups and downs this year as far as taking care of the basketball," Nelson said. "That'll be the difference-maker. We need to limit turnovers and take care of the basketball. Hopefully our players can respond and play with composure."