Drake women rule the Valley…
The Knapp Center was louder Friday than it has been at any other time this winter.
A record crowd of 6,456 was making the noise, and the Drake women’s basketball team was making it memorable – beating Northern Iowa 70-57 to clinch the Missouri Valley Conference’s regular-season title.
“What an awesome environment,” coach Jennie Baranczyk said. “You just can’t even… It honestly brings tears to my eyes to just think about how important this game was, just in terms of our fans.”
The victory was a culmination of Baranczyk’s five-year quest to reign over the Valley, and it rewarded a devoted but success-starved fan base.
Not since the Drake men swept conference titles and reached the NCAA Tournament in 2008 has Forest Avenue felt this sort of buzz.
And in its own way, what Baranczyk and the Bulldogs have accomplished is just as impressive and rewarding.
“I’m really, really proud of how far we’ve come,” Baranczyk said, “and we’re not done.”
Baranczyk inherited an historically significant but sputtering program in 2012, which failed to finish higher than fifth place from 2010 to 2014 – and before Friday had not won the Valley championship outright since 2000.
Carole Baumgarten and Lisa Bluder once guided the Bulldogs to powerhouse status, in an era when the women’s game was just gaining traction.
Under former coach Amy Stephens things went sideways, with Drake often slipping away from relevance as March Madness approached.
A lack of homegrown players on the roster added to a decline in interest.
Rising up from mediocrity can sometimes be trickier than going through a complete rebuild (although followers of the Drake men would probably dispute that), but Baranczyk was suited for the task.
She grew up in Des Moines, became a household name while starring for West Des Moines Dowling Catholic and earned all-Big Ten honors at Iowa, while playing for Bluder.
When athletic director Sandy Hatfield Clubb hired Baranczyk, it was coup. And to date, it’s arguably the best hire Hatfield Clubb has made during her tenure at Drake.
Baranczyk went 11-20 in her first season, but she was recruiting future catalyst Caitlin Ingle and Lizzy Wendell.
“I’m just really happy,” Ingle said Friday after the Bulldogs improved to 23-4 overall and 16-0 in the Valley. “And the best is yet to come. I think that’s the really exciting part.”
Ingle, a Southeast Polk alum who finished with 9 points, eight assists and six rebounds, was toying with Panther defenders in the fourth quarter.
Wendell, a versatile forward from Blue Springs, Mo., contributed 21 points.
They were the first in an impressive list of players Baranczyk has brought to Drake. She’s shown a knack for taking prospects ignored by bigger schools and fitting them nicely into her never-hesitate, never-pass-up-open-shot vision.
The Bulldogs have beaten their Valley rivals by an average of 26.9 points, and with nine key returners for the 2017-18 season, they could be a budding dynasty.
For now, though, they’ll try to reach the NCAAs for the first time since 2007.
Winning the Valley tournament March 9-12 would give Drake an automatic bid. The Bulldogs, currently ranked No. 21, could also receive and at-large berth.
And the farther they go, the more followers they’ll gain. As the final seconds ticked away Friday, several members of the Drake men’s team, including Reed Timmer and Ore Arogundade, took part in one of the most polite court stormings ever.
The entire student section waited until UNI players jogged past security officials before rushing to join the ladies and celebrate.
It was a sweet moment, and the path they all took made it even sweeter.