In a wide-open race following the abrupt rebuilding task ahead of defending conference champion IUPUI, Green Bay is HoriZone Roundtable’s narrow pick to take the 2021-22 Horizon League championship, according to a poll of its writers and podcast staff.
The Phoenix were hardly a unanimous, or even a clear-cut, choice. Although Kevin Borseth’s squad will almost certainly be a major factor in the title race once again, regular season co-champion Youngstown State and emergent Cleveland State tied for second place, just one point behind UWGB in the voting. Those three teams represent a clear first tier in the projections – although fourth-place pick Northern Kentucky was voted as high as second on the individual ballots.
Milwaukee, IUPUI, and Purdue Fort Wayne are the vote’s middle class, as the Panthers look to retool around Megan Walstad and recapture their form of two years ago while IUPUI attempts to piece together a strong first season under Kate Bruce. Purdue Fort Wayne, which finally is at full strength after an injury-riddled campaign, should continue moving forward.
The final four teams in the voting are all in various stages of rebuilding, as Wright State and Detroit Mercy seem to at least be headed in the right direction under their new (or new-ish) coaches, while Oakland and Robert Morris are more in the damage-assessment phase of things.
|2 (tie).||Cleveland State|
|2 (tie).||Youngstown State|
|7.||Purdue Fort Wayne|
By the end of last season, there was a pretty good argument to be made that Green Bay was playing the best basketball in the conference. After a rash of COVID issues that limited the Phoenix to two games in five weeks during December and January, Green Bay won 11 of their final 12 regular season games (including home wins over both eventual league co-champions, as well as a road victory at Cleveland State) with a stunning upset defeat to rival Milwaukee the only thing that kept them from raising yet another banner in the Kress.
Borseth’s program, which has long relied on local talent and four-year players, shifted gears and dipped into the transfer portal this summer, landing guards Tatum Koenig, Natalie McNeal, and Brehna Evans from Bradley, Saint Louis, and Division II’s St. Cloud State, respectively. Between those additions and an existing roster led by Hailey Oskey and reigning Freshman of the Year Bailey Butler, the Phoenix have everything they need to return to the top of the league.
Thanks to a third straight trip to Indianapolis for the Horizon League semifinals and a contract extension for head coach Chris Kielsmeier, the benchmarks at Cleveland State have decidedly shifted from “happy to be here” to the point where anything short of a league championship this season will be a massive disappointment. After very nearly rallying to stun IUPUI in last year’s title game, the Vikings have certainly rebuilt their roster with the horses to do it.
Leading the way, of course, is all-everything Destiny Leo and her 18.7 often-spectacular points per game, but up and down the bench CSU has rare skill and athleticism. Power forward Amele Ngwafang and guard Gabriella Smith seem poised to improve on already-good 2021-22 seasons, while Faith Burch and Aminata Ly will return after sitting out last year. Intriguing freshman big Jordana Reisma, along with transfers Carmen Villalobos, Shadiya Thomas, and Sara Guerreiro, should more than offset the departures of familiar faces Nadia Dumas, Isabelle Gradwell, and Isabella Geraci.
After being picked in the bottom half of the standings to open last season, Youngstown State now has something new to deal with after a run to a regular-season co-championship: the weight of expectations. That much sort of comes with the territory of the team’s success combined with a very productive offseason, one where the Guins only lost Chelsea Olson and a handful of role players. On the other side of the ledger John Barnes added freshman Mackenzie Hurd, along with three West Virginian transfers who were once AAU teammates of Paige Shy: Shay-Lee Kirby (Austin Peay), Dena Jarrells (Chattanooga), and Emily Saunders (Tennessee). The 6-5 Saunders was a top-100 recruit out of high school and joins a stacked group of post players headlined by Player of the Year candidate Lilly Ritz, while Jarrells is a productive all-around guard who should complement Megan Callahan, Malia Magestro, and Mady Aulbach nicely.
Northern Kentucky remains one of the toughest teams to read in the entire conference. The Norse’s talent level is undeniable; in fact, NKU boasts three of the ten players on our top two preseason all-conference teams in Lindsey Duvall, Ivy Turney, and Emmy Souder. Last season, that group (along with now-graduated mountain Grayson Rose) presented as the class of the league at times, highlighted by a ten-game winning streak in the middle of the year that included a dramatic victory at IUPUI.
And yet, on the other side of things, the Norse always seemed to fall short when it counted. Following that winning streak, NKU went 0-5 to close the season against the Horizon League’s eventual top-four seeds, including a conference tournament quarterfinal loss at Cleveland State. What’s more, it’s hard to make the case that the Norse improved over the offseason. They added freshman Allison Basye, who has star potential, but not much else, while losing HL Defensive Player of the Year Rose. On the surface, Northern Kentucky seems headed for another season just south of great.
While a league title may be a bit of a stretch for the coming season, it’s impossible to count out a squad that takes care of details as effectively as Milwaukee – the Panthers defend as well as anyone in the league and set the NCAA’s team free throw record two years ago, things that are worth a couple wins beyond what talent levels might dictate. Megan Walstad and Emma Wittmershaus provide plenty of stability and reliability in the post, which is as vital as ever now that Sydney Staver, McKaela Schmelzer, and Miquela Santoro are gone (Schmelzer, incidentally, has signed to play pro soccer in Greece after duty as a two-sport athlete for the Panthers).
One of the new Milwaukee players to watch is freshman Kamy Peppler, a fiery point guard who was Wisconsin’s Ms. Basketball and the sixth-ranked player in the state. Kendall Nead and Angie Cera may also take on expanded roles in their sophomore seasons.
IUPUI finally reached their three-year goal of playing in the NCAA Tournament last season, an accomplishment delayed first by COVID, then by Wright State. Immediately after that, the curse of being a successful mid-major team struck the Jags with its full force: Austin Parkinson was hired away by Butler, and took his whole coaching staff, star players Rachel McLimore and Anna Mortag, and headlining recruit Jessica Carrothers along with him. Four-time Horizon League Player of the Year Macee Williams graduated of course (and was drafted by the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury), as did Madison Wise. Oof.
Still, all is not lost in Indy. Parkinson’s replacement is Kate Bruce, who led an absolute juggernaut at Division II’s Walsh University, to the tune of 134-43 in six years. Bruce managed to hang on to a few key pieces from last season like top point guard Destiny Perkins, sharpshooter Rachel Kent, and gutty Natalie Andersen. Freshmen Teresa Maggio and Brianna Wooldridge come highly-acclaimed as well. All in all, it could be a softer rebuild than expected for the champs.
Maria Marchesano’s second season at Purdue Fort Wayne arrives with plenty of promise, particularly now that the Mastodons are healthy for the first time since early last year. Beyond Jazzlyn Linbo, the Dons still lack the size that had 5-11 guard Aubrey Stupp frequently roaming the paint last year which may prove a fatal flaw in a post-heavy conference, but there’s little doubt that PFW has plenty to offer beyond that, particularly in terms of guards with handles who can also shoot the ball. Shayla Sellers, Sylare Starks and sisters Riley and Ryin Ott all return, and incoming transfers Sydney Graber (Central Michigan) and Destinee Marshall (Radford) offer another healthy dose of experience. Jaidyn Koerdt highlights a five-player freshman class, while returners like Audra Emmerson and Amellia Bromenschenkel should take another step in their respective developments. The Dons aren’t quite there just yet, but they’re well on the way.
The league’s other second-year coach, Wright State’s Kari Hoffman, probably has an intense feeling of déjà vu, since she’s once again tasked with a drastic rebuild of a roster battered by the transfer portal during the offseason.
The good news is that unlike last year’s makeshift group of Katrina Merriweather holdovers and, uh, team managers, Hoffman has fully initiated the process of forging the program in her image. It’s not entirely clear what that means right now, but a starting point of a great, Ohio-grown freshman class can’t be a bad thing. Macie Taylor, who edged out Mackenzie Hurd and Allison Basye to be the highest-ranked HLWBB freshman from the Buckeye State, headlines that group. Another prong to Hoffman’s plan involves strategic transfer additions, including two of her former Cedarville players in Emily Chapman and Isabelle Bolender, as well as former Arizona recruit Bryce Nixon and Athena Hocevar, who redshirted last year at Youngstown State. The entire thing is a giant question mark right now, but it’s going to be a fun one to watch play out.
While Robert Morris has more than its own share of unknowns, the Colonials once again read as a team that has enough to offer in terms of defense and fundamentals to frustrate just about everyone they play, while lacking the offensive firepower to close out a ton of high-profile wins. Emotional leader Sol Castro will begin her junior year looking to reclaim the form that made her a conference all-freshman team pick in 2020-21, while Charlie Buscaglia – back on the sidelines after missing most of last year – will look to replace workhorse guards Esther Castedo and Nina Augustin, as well as emerging forward Ashya Klopfenstein, who exited through the portal to Utah State. RMU’s famously international roster will need some big contributions from its freshmen hailing from Spain, Quebec, British Columbia, and Maryland if the Colonials are destined to push towards the middle of the standings.
One generally wouldn’t expect a team that ended its season in the Horizon League semifinals to be picked near the basement the following year, but not many teams have had a recent stretch quite like Oakland.
Just to recap, head coach Jeff Tungate missed most of 2021-22 due to health issues, the second time in three years he’s taken a lengthy leave of absence. Associate head coach Ke’Sha Blanton filled in admirably both times, highlighted this past year by a comeback win at Purdue Fort Wayne with OU down to six available players and a Horizon League quarterfinal upset of Youngstown State. Then Tungate returned, Blanton’s contract was not renewed (she landed on her feet at Eastern Michigan) and a bevy of good players entered the portal, including Kahlaijah Dean.
What’s left has some promise, particularly in the form of steady Breanne Beatty, and it’s entirely possible that Aaliyah McQueen finds the form that once made her a top recruit for Illinois. Freshman guard Brooke Daniels is a certified gamer, and a handful of experienced transfers will help as well. But all in all, the Golden Grizzlies feel like a rudderless program with a collection of pieces that don’t quite fit.
Just about everyone agrees that Detroit Mercy made an absolute home run of a hire in Kate Achter. Achter, who took former Horizon League school Loyola Chicago from 2-28 to 18-12 (the Ramblers’ most wins since 1988-89) over her six years there, was stunningly not renewed by the school following last season. The Titans wisely scooped her up in short order, officially bringing an end to the AnnMarie Gilbert/LaTanya Collins circus of the last two seasons (really, it was only two years).
Achter will build a winner in Calihan Hall, but she doesn’t have the roster to pull off any miracles in her first season. Irene Murua and Imani McNeal are both back, and Taylor Blunt (who signed for Gilbert in 2020, and has stuck around through everything despite a brief flirtation with the portal) will finally see game action as well. West Bloomfield-produced freshman point guard Myonna Hooper could wind up being a cornerstone player as UDM tries to get things rolling.