Leo picked to win Player of the Year award
For the first time in quite a while, the Horizon League’s Player of the Year race can accurately be considered wide open, thanks to the graduation of four-time winner Macee Williams. Although the lack of an incumbent gives several players a realistic shot at the award, our staff has predicted that Cleveland State’s Destiny Leo will become the first Viking to take the honor since Kailey Klein in 2008-09 during the coming season. Youngstown State’s Lilly Ritz, Northern Kentucky’s Lindsey Duvall, Green Bay’s Hailey Oskey, and Milwaukee’s Megan Walstad round out the HoriZone Roundtable’s preseason all-conference first team.
As one might expect, given the nature of picking preseason all-conference teams, veterans dominated our fifteen selections, with only transfers Lilly Ritz, Rachel Kent, and Amele Ngwafang (all returning upperclass players) carrying less than two seasons of experience within the Horizon League. Eight of the picks appeared on the league’s all-conference teams to close last season, including each player returning to the HL this year.
|First Team||Second Team||Third Team|
|* Destiny Leo|
G, Cleveland State (Jr.)
G, Northern Kentucky (Sr.)
G, Youngstown State (Jr.)
F, Youngstown State (Sr.)
G, Purdue Fort Wayne (Sr.)
F, Cleveland State (Sr.)
G, Northern Kentucky (Gr.)
F/C, Northern Kentucky (Gr.)
G, Green Bay (R-So.)
F, Milwaukee (R-Jr.)
G, Oakland (Sr.)
F/C, Milwaukee (R-Jr.)
G, Green Bay (Sr.)
G/F, IUPUI (Jr.)
F, Robert Morris (Jr.)
It’s probably not fair to give Destiny Leo all of the credit for the Vikings’ resurgence over the past couple seasons given the depth CSU has built over that time, but there’s no question that Leo is a dynamic force able to swing the trajectory of games in several different ways. She’s more than capable of driving the lane, taking a beating, and making teams pay at the line. Or, if you prefer, she’ll deploy her Curry-esque three-point range and a nearly 40 percent clip from behind the arc. The former Ohio Ms. Basketball runner-up also grabs plenty of her 18.3 points per game in transition, after steals and other quick-change situations. It’s stunning to think that her best may still be in front of her, but it’s also entirely possible.
Lilly Ritz probably could have been considered a Player of the Year frontrunner a year ago, until a late-season meeting with Williams and IUPUI that largely settled the awards race and also ultimately forced a split regular-season title. Nevertheless, the former Division II rebounding queen is back to lead an extremely deep and talented group of bigs as the Penguins look for a bit of redemption after a disappointing postseason. At 6-1, Ritz is rarely the biggest player in the paint, but she’s usually the smartest with a finesse game to match.
Former five-star recruit Lindsey Duvall might be the most well-rounded player in the conference as a guard who shot her way to 16.6 points per game last year while also hauling in 7.4 rebounds, numbers that made her the only guard to rank in the conference’s top ten in both statistics (fellow first teamers Ritz and Walstad joined her when including all returning players). Duvall is capable of taking over in a way few players can – her 29-point, 14-rebound performance at Saint Louis last year was a masterclass in that regard – but game-to-game consistency will determine how far she and the Norse can go.
A truly elite facilitator out of the high post, Megan Walstad will attempt to lead Milwaukee back from a disappointing follow-up to their 2021 regular-season championship. At 14.4 points and 9.1 rebounds per game she nearly averaged a double-double last year, yet was somehow quiet enough to be taken for granted a lot of the time. Walstad’s challenge this year will be to develop cohesion with a somewhat-refreshed supporting cast that needs to replace several of its top perimeter players, though fellow big Emma Wittmershaus remains to help Walstad take the pressure off of that group.
Much like her team that lurked on the edge of relevance until getting hot late in the season, Hailey Oskey’s journey to recognition as one of the Horizon League’s top players was a bit of a slow burn. Green Bay’s famous team game typically makes it hard to recognize individual contributions, but Oskey’s performance down the stretch, highlighted by a career-best 26-point effort in a win at Cleveland State on February 26th, helped her collect all-league first-team honors at the end of the year. Oskey also fired home a Phoenix-best 14 points (including several clutch shots) in Green Bay’s double-overtime win over Youngstown State on February 3rd, one of the HL’s best games of the year.
The less-recognized half of NKU’s dynamic duo, Ivy Turner nevertheless does a lot of the dirty work that makes Duvall’s brilliance possible. Her 4.0 assists per game lead the conference’s returning players, with many of those coming via the drive and kick. Her 13.4 points per game also show that she finishes plenty of those on her own, and she’s also a tenacious defender capable of singlehandedly flipping a game’s momentum.
If Purdue Fort Wayne takes its next step towards Horizon League contention, Shayla Sellers will be a driving force behind the effort. Despite being hampered by a mid-season concussion, not to mention team-wide injury issues that altered the roles of just about every Mastodon, Sellers emerged as one of the conference’s best shooters as well as a heady leader who didn’t back down from what seemed like an impossible challenge at times.
Emmy Souder probably hasn’t received her due throughout her career with the Norse, not only because of players like Duvall and Turner, but also mammoth Grayson Rose patrolling the interior of the NKU defense. Souder, however, has machine-like ability as a garbage collector, collecting rebounds and other loose balls to put home for an automatic two. In a league receiving top-tier post play from most of its contenders, she’ll be as important as ever to her team’s success.
It might be a rough year for Oakland given the turmoil on the team’s roster and even with the coaching staff, but there’s little doubt that Breanne Beatty will become even more of a staple for the Grizzlies than she was last year as perhaps the only truly reliable part of a team riddled by injuries and inconsistency. Jack-Jack was at her best during OU’s surprise run to the Horizon League semifinals, ending the season on nine consecutive double-digit scoring efforts.
The defending league champions will have a much different look this year thanks to a bevy of departed coaches and players, but Rachel Kent is a constant that will help ensure that the Jags’ rebuild under Kate Bruce proceeds smoothly. The Saint Louis transfer, who was IUPUI’s third-leading scorer in 2021-22, is largely a straightforward three-point shooter, but she’s good enough at that (39.1 percent) to not need a particularly deep bag of tricks.
Youngstown State, as they did last year, will receive contributions from all over their roster. Newcomer Dena Jarrells might make a push for league honors, as could returner Paige Shy. But it’s hard to argue with Malia Magestro, who was the second-best three-point shooter on a good three-point shooting Guins team last year while quietly averaging north of ten points per game.
Similarly, YSU’s Northeast Ohio rivals should have a large number of players making important contributions to complement Leo’s efforts. Of those, Amele Ngwafang seems primed to take a big step forward in the coming year largely thanks to role expansion with the graduation of Nadia Dumas. Make no mistake though: she was already really, really good in averaging 7.8 points and 7.2 rebounds last year.
Cassie Schiltz, in a lot of ways, is a prototypical Green Bay player in the way she does just about everything well, and she’ll be counted on once again to help lead the way on a Phoenix team that is still extremely young and talented. Her 16 points led the way for UWGB on February 19th in a win over IUPUI that completely altered the conference title race last year.
If Milwaukee climbs back into league contention, chances are good that the twin towers of Walstad and Emma Wittmershaus will have a lot to do with it. Wittmershaus was second on the Panthers last year in blocks and rebounds, and if she can stay out of foul trouble and on the floor, she could be poised for a healthy amount of stats inflation.
Sol Castro fell off a bit last season after her all-freshman team 2020-21, but she remains a blood-and-guts player who plays outstanding interior defense and is good for workmanlike, if unspectacular, offense. Her leadership will be vital this year for the Colonials and their usual United Nations roster that has to replace the likes of Esther Castedo and Nina Augustin.