Panthers have the culture – and talent – to improve quickly
Roster turnover is a common theme across the Horizon League this season, with teams often replacing seven, eight, or even ten players that finished the 2022-23 season. In most ways, Milwaukee plainly doesn’t fit that mold. The Panthers return ten players who earned minutes last year, five of whom started at least nine games, and they didn’t lose anyone through the transfer portal.
Then why is everyone writing off Kyle Rechlicz’s 12th team as if it did have to start rebuilding from near-zero, like so many others? Mostly because two of its three graduation losses were, quite literally, massive: Megan Walstad and Emma Wittmershaus, talents that defined a lot of the Panthers’ identity over the last few years. Walstad, in particular, was a two-time all-conference first teamer who also earned an annual place on the HL’s all-defensive team.
“A lot of people are counting us out,” Rechlicz admitted. “We had the loss of two senior post players last year who played quality minutes for us, but as a team, we really feel like we have the pieces that we need to be successful.”
She’s probably right.
Milwaukee returns Kendall Nead and Angie Cera, headlining a bevy of skilled, athletic wing types. They also have one of the Horizon League’s best freshman classes, including highly-rated Wisconsin prospects Sophia Rampulla and Jorey Buwalda, and the rest of the team is still young as well; only Grace Crowley is listed as a senior. Things might look a little different than in the past as the Panthers are now somewhat undersized, particularly relative to recent iterations of the squad, but they certainly have some hoopers.
They also have the unshakable culture of a program that is always among the conference’s best at “coach things,” including defense, rebounding, and free throw shooting – in fact, Milwaukee broke the NCAA’s record for free throw accuracy during their HL regular season championship season in 2020-21. That all began with Rechlicz over a decade ago, but it has become more of a player-led phenomenon in recent seasons.
“There’s a lot of times I don’t have to coach in practice, our team kind of steps in and coaches,” the head coach explained. “The culture takes care of itself.”
“When I first took the job, I think I had a list of 30 or 40 rules that I implemented. You know, you gotta do this, you gotta go to class, you gotta sit in the first three rows. It was like a book, a textbook, that they had to read and know and sign off on. I think we’re down to like ten rules now because they hold each other accountable. I walk into practice, everybody’s jersey’s already tucked in, the standard is already set. So I get to focus on details and let the team focus on some of those big-picture items.”
Kendall Nead – Even with Walstad and Wittmershaus around, it was Nead who ultimately became the Panthers’ top offensive option by the end of the season, as she led the team in both scoring (11.1 points per game) and usage rate (26.3 percent). Nead epitomizes a lot of things that are true of most of Milwaukee’s best players, as she has good size, defends and rebounds well, and executes the system at a high level.
Angie Cera – Cera joins Nead as one of the team’s upperclass leaders, and she’s another smart player in the vicinity of six feet tall. The Mukwonago, WI native averaged 8.3 points per game last season, and was the team’s top three-point option, tossing up nearly five shots from deep per game and connecting on just over 30 percent of those tries. She’s also very good at moving the ball, as she trailed only the team’s point guards and high-post distributor Walstad among the Panthers’ assist leaders.
Jada Donaldson – Donaldson was the Panthers’ primary ballhandler by the end of last season, and though she’s not much of a threat to shoot or score herself, she was elite at the point guard’s most important jobs: taking care of the basketball and facilitating the offense. Her 2.09 assist-to-turnover ratio was far and away ahead of any other Panther, and though she may ultimately take a back seat to the more explosive Kamy Peppler as things proceed, it will be difficult to keep Donaldson’s reliability off the floor.
Grace Crowley – Crowley is another example of a player who can consistently make the most of opportunities. Her 57.4 percent field goal rate was cleanly the best on the team last season, and she’s also a capable rebounder, particularly on the offensive side.
Anna Lutz – While Milwaukee doesn’t have someone who can seamlessly step in for their graduated posts, Lutz could be in for a bit of an expanded role as someone who plays a solid interior game, though without overwhelming size. Her efficiency numbers are outstanding across the board, including 1.09 points per scoring attempt and a 53.2 effective field goal percentage, and she’s also an above-average defender.
Kamy Peppler – One of the Panthers’ star recruits from a year ago, Peppler was a frequent starting point guard as a freshman and led the team in assists, by a lot (which is saying something on a squad that was fourth in the nation in assisted shot rate), but she also led the team in turnovers, by a lot. Still, she’s a high-upside player who should eventually become a staple of the starting five.
Jada Williams – After redshirting last year Williams, yet another point guard, offers the Panthers additional lineup flexibility. She was an Iowa state finalist as a sprinter on the Mason City High School track team and uses that athleticism to be an upper-tier defender.
Vanessa Jurewicz – Jurewicz, from Stockholm, Sweden by way of the juco ranks, is another great athlete that will likely play as a combo guard at Milwaukee. She offers a little bit better of a shot than most of the other perimeter options.
Izzy Pugh – It will be interesting to see how the Panthers utilize Pugh, a true freshman from New Zealand. On one hand, she’s pretty much the only pure post player on the roster right now. On the other, that might make her an awkward fit, depending on how Rechlicz and company scheme around their upperclassmen.
Jorey Buwalda/Sophia Rampulla – There should be opportunities for freshmen at Milwaukee to make a significant impact this season, and Rechlicz certainly showed that she’s willing to offer rookies important minutes with Peppler. Buwalda, in particular, is a versatile bruising 4 that fills an immediate need for the Panthers while Rampulla should already be one of the better shooters on the team.
Payton Rechlicz – Rechlicz, another rookie, merits a special mention as the daughter of the head coach. “My daughter spent the last six months, when she lived in my house, calling me ‘Coach’ and not calling me ‘Mom’ to get prepared for it,” the coach/mom said. “I want her to understand that any time she’s in the building, she’s one of my players and not my daughter.”
“It’s great being able to see her. We try to do dinners once every two weeks just so I can be Mom occasionally and not always Coach. It’s a blessing to have her there every day.”
Milwaukee won’t open the season as Horizon League favorites, and it’s hard to say whether they’ll find enough just enough offense to flip last year’s 11-19 overall record into something a bit more positive. Still, it’s a pretty good time to be a Panther. The school just opened a gorgeous new practice facility adjacent to the Klotsche Center, and given the youth and talent on the roster – along with the culture implemented by the veterans – it’s entirely possible that things evolve pretty quickly. Milwaukee, at its best, is a program that grinds opponents into submission while shortening games, and they may be closer to that point than many realize.
However, Rechlicz isn’t concerned with that sort of thinking right now.
“We haven’t really set expectations,” she said. “We are taking it one day at a time, we’re really focused on the process of winning each day. If we have a bad practice, we can come back the next day and know it’s not really going to affect us, because it’s a new day.”
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