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Mandy Willems photo

She’s one of the best in the country, but only seems to have realized it recently.

Confidence has not always come easy for NIACC freshman Mandy Willems. Though she has been pelted with accolades this season, including four NJCAA Division II National Player of the Week awards, and being named the NJCAA Division II Player of the Year, Willems has no hint of bravado. But her quiet, unassuming demeanor belies the fierce competitor that she is.

“I think she’s the best shooter in the conference,” coach Todd Ciochetto said. “What has made her elite is when she’s able to get to the rim and finish, … that makes her really tough to guard, because her range is the best in the country.”

Willems has helped lead her team to the NJCAA DII tournament, where they play as the No. 2 seed this Tuesday in Harrison, Ark., against Wayne County CC (MI).

The Trojans finished the season with a 27-5 record, and are in the midst of a 15-game winning streak. They haven’t lost a game since Jan. 19, mostly due to their impressive collection of young shooters.

Freshman Jada Buford and Autumn Mendez averaged 19.3 and 16 points per game, respectively.

Willems averaged an impressive 24.6 points per game and leads the country in free throw percentage, at 92.8 percent.

Willems is highly regarded within the college ranks.

With the season she has had, she is receiving attention from some high-major schools. Before coming to NIACC, Willems wasn’t even sure she’d be a basketball player for much longer. But her familiarity with the coach and NIACC’s closeness to home, made the Ackley native more comfortable as she figured out her plan.

“I just thought it’d be a good option, mostly because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to play basketball for a full four years as a senior last year,” Willems said. “I was unsure of myself and my capabilities and what I could do. It was a good fit. Now I have the choice to go on and keep playing. It worked out pretty well.”

She and Ciochetto first met in seventh grade, when she started playing on Ciochetto’s team. They didn’t always have the same chemistry they have now.

“I used to be terrified of him when I was a seventh-grader,” Willems says with a laugh. “I’ve obviously changed a lot, and I’m more comfortable with him now.”

Willems cites Ciochetto’s intense personality as the reason for her fear. One of her most vivid memories is one that was bound to leave an impression on the team and for whatever poor janitor had to come by to clean up after practice.

“Back in seventh grade, we would run down and backs when we weren’t doing well in practice,” Willems said. “There was this girl that started throwing up from running all those down and backs. We just kept going.”

Ciochetto chuckles when he remembers the days of striking fear into the hearts of his ballers.

By all accounts, his personality has gotten a bit less intense over the years, though you’d never know it by watching him during a game.

But back when he and Willems started to work together, she wasn’t the superstar she is now. It took a lot of hard work.

“That summer she found out she was pretty good,” Ciochetto said. “I don’t think she knew how good she was, but we did, and then she came here. One of the reasons she is so good is that her teammates have so much confidence in her. Mandy didn’t have a lot of confidence in herself.”

Ciochetto has received his own recognition this season, winning the conference Coach of the Year award. But he brushes off any recognition, and focuses it back on his players.

“I think I was recruiter of the year,” Ciochetto said.”These girls have done everything they need to be successful. We work hard early in the year, and they have all freedom on the court. I think that’s a trust issue between us and them. I just have good players.”

With all the attention Willems is receiving from colleges, it seems like a given that she will go elsewhere next season. But it is no guarantee. Ciochetto thinks that there is a chance that she might come back, and Willems herself is coy about her plans.

“I definitely have put some thought into it, but I’m more focused on nationals next week, and getting it done with my team,” Willems said “It’s definitely something that is sort of in the back of my mind, and something I’m considering, … we’ll see what happens.”

With big things looming for Willems, she gives credit for her success to lots of hard work, and the support her teammates and coaches have given her. Ciochetto echoes that sentiment.

“I’ve believed in her forever,” Ciochetto said “Being every day with her, she sees that, and she trusted us as a coaching staff. She saw how much belief we had in her, and I think that rubbed off on her belief in herself.”

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