It has not been as easy of a season as the record would indicate for the top-ranked Saint Francis women's basketball team.
Despite being 30-0 and breaking program records seemingly every game, the ability for the Cougars to stay focused and grounded has not been easy at times.
To go undefeated throughout the regular season and sit atop the national rankings for the majority of the season takes a special kind of team. A team that Coach Gary Andrews feels he has with this roster.
While the competition on the court has been tough, the mental aspects of being No. 1 have brought a completely different set of challenges for the players.
“It can be tough at times,” said senior Jenelle Wilson about the pressures of being No. 1. “But I think that the older you get and more experience you have with these pressures … it just becomes easier.
“It's just something you put out of your mind and you just play the game.”
Saint Francis has played the game well this season entering the start of the Crossroads League Tournament tonight against Spring Arbor at the Hutzell Athletic Center.
The Cougars have had just two games decided by five points or less and have won by an average victory margin of 18.2 points per contest.
While some teams buckle under the pressure of being the top-ranked team in the country, the Cougars have rolled with it and handled it admirably.
Something that has helped immeasurably is the prior experience that Andrews has in coaching a team that is No.1. During his tenure as head coach of the Bishop Luers girls' basketball team in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Knights had a stretch where they were ranked atop the Class 2A poll for long periods of time along with winning several championships, including going 28-0 and winning a state championship in Andrews' final season in 2000-01.
“Just that experience and being able to enjoy No. 1 and knowing everybody's going to give you their best shot,” said Andrews when asked how his experience in high school has assisted this year. “That has kind of helped in being able to handle the situation.”
While the Cougars have done a good job in keeping their focus on the present instead of the future, some of them admittedly have a hard time not looking ahead.
“It kind of is in a way, especially now when nationals are so close and you still have the conference tournament to go through,” Wilson said. “But that's when you have to re-evaluate everything and focus on the game that's right in front of you .
“We have to help each other out with that, it is more than just ourselves.”
So far, Saint Francis has conquered being No. 1 just as it has conquered every opponent this season up to this point.
“Some people maybe feel the pressure (of being No. 1), we just kind of enjoy it,” Andrews said. “We realize that everybody is going to give us their best shot, but that's good. We are No. 1, that's the place you want to be.
“You work hard to get up there, you just try and stay there.”
Shurn, other Cougars honored
Saint Francis senior Skylarr Shurn received multiple awards from the Crossroads League on Monday.
The Kokomo graduate was honored for her recent play by being named as the conference Player of the Week and also was named the league’s Player of the Year for this season.
“Skylarr is the best offensive guard we have ever had here,” Andrews said in a release. “She can drive to the rim as well as anybody in the country. She is a great young athlete who makes the most of her incredible speed and ability to score when we get down. She has a special determination and has made the most of her talents.”
The weekly honor was the third for Shurn this season.
Andrews was honored as the conference Co-Coach of the Year after leading his team to a perfect season thus far.
Also being lauded were sophomore forward Brooke Ridley, who joined Shurn on the All-Conference first team. The Bishop Luers alumnus was the only underclassman chosen in voting by the league coaches.
Saint Francis senior guard Jenelle Wilson was named to the second team for the second time in her career.
Ridley has already raised the Saint Francis career blocked shots record to 155 and leads the Crossroads League in rebound average, shooting percentage (57.8 percent) and blocked shots. She ranks No. 7 in NAIA shooting percentage.
Wilson recently became the 19th member of the Cougars program to score 1,000-plus career points and also ranks third all-time in assists (365). Shurn is the second Cougars player to be selected conference player of the year under Andrews. She joins Julie Seiss (2010-11) and Brenda Schlegel, who were selected MCC Player of the Year three times (1997-98, 1998-99, 1999-00). Shurn has scored 1,114 points in two seasons with the Cougars, and her 605 points this season is fifth all-time on the Saint Francis single-season scoring list, just one point behind Megan Dossen.
“What matters most to me is the team and doing whatever I can to help our team win,” Shurn said earlier this season.
Shurn has now received the Crossroads League’s weekly honor four times in her career.
“We’re proud of all three players who earned recognition as well as their teammates, who made it possible for us to succeed as a team, which is what matters most to all our players,” Andrews said.