MASON CITY | Sophomore UU Longs walks across the gym to a reporter, dressed in a black T-shirt rolled up at the arms and a pair of basketball shorts.
She says she’s not good at interviews, but she has a lot to say.
“What am I excited for most?” Longs said. “Um, going to nationals because that’s where we’re going.”
Longs stands tall with confidence at 5-foot-1, she’s one of six returning sophomores for the No. 9 NIACC women’s basketball team, a second-team all-region selection. She’s a leader on this team, and this year she’s working harder at it.
“It’s a big role as a point guard because you automatically are the leader, so I didn’t really, like, get the concept down like I was supposed to last year,” Longs said. “First off, starting in the classroom, going to class and being on time because I have classes with some of the freshmen. On the court, I’m playing around because I’m a very goofy person.”
All of the sophomores say that this team is different. The Lady Trojans fell to No. 1 Kirkwood last year in the regional final, 90-81. There’s a chip on their shoulders, but also an eagerness to help the freshmen buy into the mindset of a team that has been to 11 regional finals.
“Last year, it was just three of the sophomores and they were to themselves in the beginning,” Longs said. “The freshmen didn’t really know them and we didn’t really know each other. But with us knowing each other this year, it’s like we are welcoming them to being open with us because we don’t want them to be shy.”
Two notable returners are freshman Jordan Prantner and sophomore Kelsie Willert.
Prantner underwent hip surgery last season to repair a torn labrum she had since high school. She spent a month on crutches and seven months going to physical therapy two to three times a week.
“Simple stuff like walking upstairs just took a lot.” Prantner said.
She spent all of last season watching her teammates playing the game she loved. But her season spent in recovery wasn’t a total loss, Prantner gained a new perspective.
“I’m really excited to get back out there with my teammates, having to sit out a year makes me miss it that much more and you realize how much you love the game when you’re not able to play it,” Prantner said. “When you’re playing you always look at things from a player’s perspective and when I was able to scout a whole year, I started to look at it from a coach’s standpoint and really understand the game better and see the floor open up in a different way.”
Willert, a third-team all-region pick, also returns eager to take the floor. The Lady Trojans start their season with a matchup against No. 18 Illinois Central on Friday, Nov. 3.
“I think it will be not necessarily a wake-up call, but getting started right out of the gate is what we need to do to set the pace for the rest of the season,” Willert said. “Not going down to maybe lower standards, getting it off at a high note.”
Sophomores Taylor Laabs, Adria Stewart and Khalilah Holloway are also key returners for the Lady Trojans. Laabs is a first-team all-region pick. Stewart was named to the regional all-tournament team last year, while Holloway received third-team all-region status.
“Our sophomore leadership has really helped out,” head coach Todd Ciochetto said. “We have nine kids back and they are very athletic. They give us something a lot of teams don’t have.”
But the strength is also in numbers and size this year, the Lady Trojans boast a squad of 17 girls and 15 of them will see time on the floor. The freshmen class also adds height to the squad.
“A lot of teams have a few good players, but they don’t have 15 good players, so if we can just keep going and going and going, eventually, hopefully, we can wear them out,” Ciochetto said. “We’re bigger, we’ve never been very big. We have a 6-foot-1 girl, a bunch of 5-11, 5-10. The fact that they’re big, but can still run and shoot, is what makes us a little bit different.”
But there’s one thing that hasn’t changed, and that’s the Lady Trojans’ ability to put up points.
“Everybody knows a lot about us, we’re a three-point shooting team and that’s nothing new.” Longs said.