Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

With a ‘Fire’ Lit, Husker Women Gearing up for Important Summer

June 02, 2022

Nebraska’s women’s basketball team is coming off a season where it made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2018. For the most part, the core of its roster has stayed intact and even got a boost when guard Sam Haiby, a veteran and leader in the program, chose to return for her fifth season.

There’s no doubt about it—it’s an exciting time for the program. But head coach Amy Williams is also aware of the situation that her team will be in next season.

“We’ve seen many examples of situations where teams have good teams coming back, and on paper it looks like they should be good and preseason predicted for this or that, and they don’t ever amount to that,” Williams said on ‘Sports Nightly’ May 26. “So we understand that it’s really going to boil down to the commitment that we make to keeping our culture protected and making sure the core values within our program remain the biggest focus and that we can stay together as a group. And how well we do that will determine whether we reach the potential that we’ve got, but it’s certainly an exciting group and an exciting time for us.”

When last season came to an end with a 68-55 loss to Gonzaga in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Louisville, there wasn’t much time for Williams and her staff to sit down and reflect on the season. There was movement with the roster. Six players moved on from the program, including guards Mi’Cole Cayton (transfer to Minnesota), Ruby Porter (turned pro back home in Australia), walk-on Whitney Brown (transferred to Fort Hays State), Ashley Scoggin (transfer to UNLV) and forwards Bella Cravens (transferred to TCU) and Tatiana Popa (pursuing degree at Nebraska).

“There’s a lot of changes and transition and kind of a whirlwind in recruiting with the transfer portal and some things that happened,” Williams said. “Then after all those pieces were kind of in place and things were going, I took just a little bit of time to kind of reflect.”

Right now the team is in the part of the offseason where players are recharging and recovering. Coming up soon, there’s a three- to four-week window for postseason work. What’s that consist of?

“Recover their bodies, train and really identify what are the top, key things, just watching film with the team, that they want to improve on just in postseason but then also in our summer access,” Williams said.

Summer school begins June 6, which also kicks off a period lasting around eight weeks in the summer where the team gets access to the players for eight hours per week. That summer access period includes four hours spent with the strength and conditioning staff and four on the basketball court.

That period goes on until early August. When it’s completed, the players are given another couple weeks to take off and relax before getting back to work in the fall. Williams hopes to replicate the June and July months from last year, which helped acclimate the players to the kind of competition level they’d face during the season.

“I think that those eight weeks of summer access last year were really important for the motto that we had really embraced, which was compete and connect,” Williams said. “There were a lot of times that summer where we had some very competitive practices where our kids were just learning how to embrace that competition and knowing that, it’s not always fun to have somebody that’s getting in your grill every day, but knowing that’s going to make me a much better player.”

Those eight-hour-per-week periods aren’t just crucial to the development on the court. It’s important for building good teammates, too. Williams calls it connecting.

“In the eight hours a week that we’re together where they’re really working on their connections, but even outside of that,” she said. “Trips to the lake together and just having a good time and learning each other and spending the time to really get connected.”

Williams thinks that last summer showed the team that there’s potential for great things.

“I think our players really started to believe that the team could accomplish some big things with what they were seeing every day at workouts, and the improvement and the competition,” she said. “So I think that helped set the tone for what our expectations were going to be heading into the season.”

Taste of success

The NCAA Tournament run provided the team with memories and experiences that will last for a while. The selection show event with fans inside Pinnacle Bank Arena was one. Hearing “Nebraska” for the first time since 2018 and erupting in celebration was another.

But the Huskers also left Louisville, Kentucky, with a bad taste in their mouth.

“We didn’t play our best basketball, we felt like, in that tournament,” Williams said. “I think that left us feeling kind of a fire in our bellies to want to raise the bar and find ways to get back there and put our best foot forward in that tournament again moving forward.”

Many of the players who played against Gonzaga are returning. Some aren’t. But there have been recent additions to the program who Williams is excited about. Maddie Krull is one. Williams believes the program hit a home run out of the transfer portal with Krull.

Krull, a 5-foot-9 guard, spent the past two seasons at South Dakota, where Williams coached from 2012-16. Krull has three years of eligibility left and is a durable player—she started all 35 games of her career with the Coyotes and averaged 6.8 points, four rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.3 steals last season. She has NCAA Tournament experience, too, as South Dakota made a Sweet Sixteen run.

Krull is a straight-up winner and competitor, Williams said, which makes her a perfect fit for the program. That grit and toughness was easy to spot during Krull’s AAU days and her time at Millard South High school.

“She carried that with her in her first couple years of college, and just found her way out there to conference championships and playing in the Sweet Sixteen,” Williams said. “Just watching that Nebraska kid as she was sitting in a defensive stance, guarding and playing a key role on a winning team. And I think that fits exactly what we want. We know she’s a hard worker and she’s a versatile guard who we feel brings that tough-minded winning mindset that we want.”

Versatility is a trait Williams looks for in her guards. Everyone is unique, though. Some are good shooters. Others are better passers. Some are better defensively or at handling the ball.

Combine that versatility with freedom, and you have the potential for another strong fast-paced offense.

“When you have the versatile guards that we’ve got in our program, and anybody can feel comfortable being able to push tempo and create shots for themselves or other people, I think that makes our team a little more challenging to match up and guard,” Williams said, “because you don’t really know where you’re going to find Sam Haiby—she might have the ball in her hands, she might be sprinting down the floor for a layup. I think that unpredictability and versatility, where anybody can get it and go and make good decisions and create for our team, it just gives us a lot of options.”

Krull isn’t the only addition to next season’s team. A couple freshmen—guard Callin Hake and center Maggie Mendelson—join the program, too.

The 5-8 Hake fits the mold of a tough winner and competitor, Williams said. Hake, a strong 3-point shooter from Victoria, Minnesota, is the all-time leading scorer and rebounder at Chanhassen High school and averaged 22.2 points per game as a senior.

“Just really excited about how she fits what we need, with some of the pieces that we lost,” Williams said of Hake. “She’s just going to fit right into our family.”

Mendelson will also play volleyball for head coach John Cook at Nebraska, which leaves her availability up in the air for at least the early parts of the basketball season. A 6-5 athlete, Mendelson will train with the basketball team in June before leaving for her USA Volleyball duties in July.

“Incredibly, incredibly talented,” Williams said. “Six-foot-5 post player that can run and jump and block shots. She’s still very skilled, can shoot from behind the arc and just brings a lot of things to the table on the basketball court that we’re very excited about.”

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