WINONA LAKE – Grace’s women’s basketball team peaked at the right time last year, playing its best over the final month of the season.
The Lady Lancers went 8-4 down the stretch, upsetting two ranked teams and clinching third place in the NCCAA National Championships.
Grace is aiming to continue that momentum in 2019-20 under second-year head coach Dan Davis. Davis injected an energetic, fast-paced style into the team last year, and he was encouraged by the team’s belief in the new system.
“We have had a great start going into year two. The returners did a great job knowing our expectations and put in work over the summer. I feel like we’ve picked up where we left off last year,” Davis said. “It’s been a very productive month of preseason, and I’m excited about where this team is at.”
Davis stressed the importance of maintaining a strong team culture, something he worked hard to establish during his first year. The program is built on “unconditional love,” in Davis’s words, affecting the way each player conducts herself both on and off the hardwood.
“Our culture is probably the most talked about thing in our program. Every day we talk about it whether it’s at practice, in workouts or during meetings,” he said. “Our team has bought into that culture fully, which I’m excited about. This team is about being a family, caring for each other and having each other’s backs. I’m proud to see how they’ve bought in, but we are going to fight for that culture every day.”
On the court, Grace brings back six of its top seven rotation players. All-American guard Brooke Sugg graduated in May, leaving a hole in terms of scoring and leadership. Davis was confident that his guards would pick up the slack.
Vironnica Drake highlights Grace’s returners. The senior guard was recognized as one of the Crossroads League’s top 10 players, being named preseason Second Team All-CL.
Drake produced 14.6 points and 5.7 rebounds per game in 2018-19, ranking second on the team in both categories. She led all league players with 2.4 steals per game. Drake will be counted on to lead Grace statistically but also vocally, according to Davis.
“I think V [Drake] has the ability to be one of the top three players in the league. She has to bring that mentality every day. She’s a big part of our program, and if she brings it every night, we will have one of the best players on the court,” Davis added.
Junior Kyannah Stull and sophomore Kamryn Hostetler started nearly every game last year and seemed to get better as the year progressed. Both averaged more than 9.0 points per game. Stull, in particular, shined as postseason competition began. She scored 19.0 points per contest over her last seven games.
Davis challenged Hostetler and Stull to up their production this year, helping make up the deficit from Sugg’s graduation.
Grace’s seniors have led well during the preseason, according to Davis. The senior class of Drake, Lexi Minix, Brooke Treadway, Micaela Box and Rachel Montgomery all lead in unique ways, and Davis was quick to recognize their efforts to teach and encourage the underclassmen.
Treadway and Kaylie Warble make up a two-headed post rotation. The duo provide an athletic, intelligent frontcourt; they shared minutes in the post last year and combined to average over 13 points and 10 boards per game.
Grace believes it will have a deeper team compared to last year, adding five newcomers to the roster. Two freshmen in particular have stood out in preseason, according to Davis.
Maddie Ryman, a freshman standout from Warsaw, is a strong, quick guard. She is active defensively, can hit the 3-point shot and is highly competitive.
Mackenzie Pulley is a talented 5-foot-10 guard from Dahlonega, Ga. Pulley presents a challenging matchup with the ability to spread the floor with her shooting and then create with the dribble.
Davis admitted the team needed to overcome its lack of height, much like last year. But he was confident that Grace’s pressing defense and aggressive attack would compensate for a shorter lineup.
Defensively last season, Grace posted a positive turnover margin of 5.94 per game, tops in the Crossroads League and ninth-best in the NAIA.
“With our style, we need to take care of the ball to offset the height difference,” Davis said. “Our strength is that we know our identity. We know the tempo and style that we want to play. We need to stay in that aggressive, attacking mindset from beginning to end.”
Grace has goals and aspirations like every team, but Davis said Grace’s goals are focused on the day-to-day level.
“While we’d love to make the NAIA tournament for the first time or win the NCCAA championship on our home court, our goals are simpler,” Davis said. “We want to strive to get better every day. That’s the mentality we are focused on; to become the best team that we can be.”
The Lady Lancers start their season with a pair of home games next week. Grace will host Cincinnati Christian on Tuesday at 7 p.m. and Cornerstone on Oct. 26 at 1 p.m.