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November 15, 2012

Rose-Hulman women's basketball preview: Engineers continuing to improve

TERRE HAUTE — The Rose-Hulman women’s basketball team didn’t dominate many opponents last season when it ended up with records of 9-18 overall and 6-12 in the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference.

But the Engineers did finish on somewhat of a high note. They defeated Manchester 48-37 in the first round of the HCAC tournament, marking their first conference tournament victory in program history. They later were eliminated by powerful Hanover.

“With last year’s team, yeah, our overall record wasn’t very good,” Rose women’s coach Jon Prevo admitted recently. “But it was a situation where we battled. At one point, we had only six healthy bodies for four games. When we got eight bodies toward the end of the year and got healthy, we were pretty good. We beat the 12th-ranked [NCAA Division III] team in the country [Franklin by a 59-52 score], the team that won our league. Then we won our first-ever conference tournament game. So by the end of the year … we were playing our best ball.”

Prevo is hoping that small taste of success can be used to build momentum for the start of this season, which takes place Friday and Saturday in the Emory Tip-Off Tournament at Atlanta.

“We’re not taking any steps backward,” Prevo insisted. “Now we’re building to go forward.”

The Engineers did lose a Division III third-team Academic All-American in Alisa Dickerson to graduation since last season. Dickerson finished No. 2 in points (1,417), No. 3 in rebounds (772), No. 1 in assists (327), No. 4 in steals (142) and No. 3 in blocked shots (140) in school history.

But Prevo and his assistant coaches have brought seven freshmen into the program, giving them a roster with 14 names on it.

“I think we have a chance, with this year’s group, to be better in a lot of different areas and part of that is our depth,” Prevo assessed. “We’re going to be able to rotate a lot of young ladies in and out.”

Opening in the rotation for the first time in more than a year will be 5-foot-7 junior guard Lauren Meadows, who missed the entire 2011-12 campaign with a torn right anterior cruciate ligament that she suffered during the preseason.

“[Rehabilitation] was very tough, but now I’m good to go,” Meadows told the Tribune-Star after a recent practice. “I’m ready to play. I missed [playing basketball] a whole heck of a lot last season. It was very hard to sit and watch my teammates play.”

Prevo, for one, is glad to have Meadows back.

“She will be looked upon to help replace some of the scoring punch we’ll lose with Alisa being gone,” Prevo noted. “Lauren is probably in the best shape of her college career. Coming back from that knee injury, she’s worked extremely hard.”

Returning starters (with their 2011-12 scoring averages in parentheses) are 6-0 junior forward Kelsey Ploof (9.5), 5-5 sophomore guard Sheree Williams (8.5), 5-6 junior guard Heather Finnell (7.3) and 6-0 sophomore forward Gracie Gibbs (5.1). Gibbs also averaged 7.3 rebounds per contest.

“Kelsey worked hard this past summer at getting better with her inside foot work and being able to step out and shoot from the 3-point line,” Prevo pointed out. “She’ll be looked upon to give us a physical presence inside.”

Two key reserves from last season plan to keep contributing — 5-11 sophomore forward Emily Fuhs and 5-10 junior forward Jaci Dalton — but Prevo warned that Rose-Hulman supporters should expect to see several youngsters on the court right off the bat.

“All seven [freshmen], I think, are going to be able to give us production this year,” the Engineers’ coach said, mentioning 5-11 forward Addie Johnson from Michigan as one fans should try to remember.

Two other freshmen — 5-8 guard Cassidy Cain and 5-5 guard Hayley Gilliam — played for the Rose women’s soccer team in the fall.

With this rare mix of veterans and talented newcomers now available for the Engineers, Meadows and Ploof sound impressed with their outlook.

“We’re looking very good,” Meadows emphasized. “We’re progressing every day, getting better. I’m really excited to see what we can do.”

“I’d say we’re definitely building on last year,” Ploof added. “Then with the pieces we’re adding in with our freshmen … I couldn’t be more optimistic about our potential. I think we’re going to really surprise the conference with the players we’ve got coming in.”

As for the HCAC, Prevo thinks Hanover will be difficult to keep from occupying the top spot in the standings, although defending champion Franklin won’t be a pushover to dethrone.

For the record, Rose-Hulman was picked to finish sixth in the conference, according to the annual preseason coaches poll.

“I don’t think any of the [other] coaches took into consideration that Lauren Meadows would be back,” Prevo said in response to that selection. “And nobody knows what anyone’s freshmen are like at this point.”

On a personal note, Prevo said his health is continuing to improve after his 2011 battle with cancer, which was documented in the Tribune-Star last season.

“I’m still cancer-free,” he mentioned. “I’m not propping myself over on a stool like I had to last year. … I’m my old self.”

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