The Shawnee State women’s basketball program entered the 2015-2016 campaign with three goals — one of those goals has already come to fruition as the regular season quickly reaches its conclusion.
The Bears have captured the Mid-South Conference regular-season championship with a 24-5 record and an 11-2 mark in league play.
“Winning the league was one of our goals,” Bears head coach Jeff Nickel said. “We had three goals coming into this year. We wanted to win the conference and we’ve been able to achieve that. We also want to win the conference tournament, and our third goal is to get to the Final Four and win a national championship.
“We’ve reached one of those goals. So, for us, even though we’ve reached the end of the season, it’s really only a third of the season because we’ve only reached one-third of our goals. These next two goals are going to be coming up pretty quick. We’ve got an opportunity to keep that dream alive.”
Shawnee State moved up to NAIA Division I and joined the Mid-South Conference before the start of the 2010-2011 season. Since the Bears made the switch, SSU has won two conference titles in five seasons and made the Final Four in 2011.
The current Bears are looking leave their own mark on the program by capturing a conference championship and eventually a national title.
“It’s going to be tough,” Nickel said. “There are six or seven teams that can win the conference tournament this year, and there are teams that are going to be fighting to get in the national tournament. We’re going to have to play our best.
“When six out of the eight teams are making it to the national tournament, that’s pretty impressive. I think the thing that separates our league so well is the parity. There are really good players on every team. But as well as the play is in the league, the coaching might be as good if not better. You’ve got really good coaches in this league.”
The Bears, ranked ninth in the country, are looking to secure a high seed in the national tournament with the resume they’ve assembled. Out of the five loses Shawnee State has suffered this year, two have come to teams ranked No. 1 in the country and the Bears have not lost back-to-back games since Thanksgiving.
“I’m really proud of our team and what we’ve been able to do because to win this league, you’ve got to be really consistent every night,” Nickel said. “You have to be consistent at home and on the road because it’s really tough to win on the road in this league.”
SSU’s offense, which is ranked sixth in the nation at 77.5 points per game, begins with senior center Ali Zieverink who leads the nation with 23 points per night. She also leads the country in shooting percentage at 61 percent.
“She’s been extremely solid,” Nickel said. “She’s the defending Mid-South Conference Player of the Year. She’s a candidate to be an All-American again and to capture that conference Player of the Year award.”
Notre Dame alum Jen Arnzen, Jonessa Moore and Lydia Poe also play significant minutes in what Nickel described as an “outstanding” postgame at Shawnee.
“Arnzen has been very solid for us. She’s done a good job of rebounding the ball and she’s a 3-point threat, which allows (Zieverink) to get open. Moore is a very athletic 6-foot-2, can rebound, can finish inside. She’s a solid player.
“Lydi Poe is a really strong kid, who’s got good hands and good feet. It’s really hard to guard us in the post just because we’ve got so much depth there.”
As far as perimeter play, SSU might even be more dangerous than feeding the ball down low. Abby Feucher has been a model of consistency. She holds the record for most minutes played and she has the all-time assists record for a career — 614 and counting.
“She’s been very solid all year,” Nickel said. “She’s been our leader and our floor general. She’s done a great job of guiding our team.”
Madison Ridout and Ashley Lovely are the other two starters in the backcourt. Nickel described Ridout as a tough, hard-nosed player who battled every possession.
Lovely, a freshman, was a former ESPN national top 100 recruit.
“Ashley can shoot it from 25 feet,” Nickel said. “She can get to the hole and finish. Ashley is going to be a candidate for freshman of the year in our conference.
“When you’ve got three starting guards like that, it’s going to put you in a position to win every single night.”
Nickel believes his team has the components to make that championship run.
“This whole team has been about balance,” Nickel said. “They’ve been about complimenting each other. They’re about ball movement. They’ve been about the team and not about their personal stats. It’s been about winning and what we have to do to do that.”
Reach Chris Slone at 740-353-3101, ext 1930, or on Twitter @crslone.