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Reloading in the Wake of Heavy Graduation Losses, Tiger Women’s Hoops Primed for Another Title Run

TAKING THE HELM: Princeton University women’s basketball player Kristen Helmstetter heads to the hoop in action last season. Senior forward Helmstetter, a second-team All-Ivy League performer in 2012-13, will be a key figure this winter as the Tigers go after a fifth straight league title. Princeton opens its 2013-14 campaign by playing Rutgers on November 10.(Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

TAKING THE HELM: Princeton University women’s basketball player Kristen Helmstetter heads to the hoop in action last season. Senior forward Helmstetter, a second-team All-Ivy League performer in 2012-13, will be a key figure this winter as the Tigers go after a fifth straight league title. Princeton opens its 2013-14 campaign by playing Rutgers on November 10. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

It was a quartet that took the Princeton University women’s basketball program to new heights.

The squad’s Class of 2013 — two-time Ivy League Player of the year Niveen Rasheed, three-time Ivy Defensive Player of the Year Lauren Polansky, Kate Miller, and Meg Bowen — led the Tigers to four straight league titles, a 54-2 Ivy record, and an overall mark of 96-20.

But as head coach Courtney Banghart looks forward to her seventh season guiding the Tigers, she isn’t crying the blues about the graduation losses from a team that went 22-7 overall and 13-1 Ivy last winter.

“This is an exciting group,” said Banghart, speaking last Thursday at the program’s annual media day.

“I think there are a lot of people who won’t recognize some of the people that are going to be really important to us as we go through. We have the same resolve and the same goal. It’s been fun to coach a team that can score and that’s what we can do. We have spent some time over the last three years, creating offense with players that struggle to score. Now we can definitely score.”

In Banghart’s view, her trio of freshmen, Jackie Reyneke, Vanessa Smith, and Taylor Brown could be be very important additions for the Tigers.

“We just do what we do here, we reload and so we have got three players who are exactly what you would want,” said Banghart, whose team opens the season by playing at Rutgers on November 10.

“We have got size in Jackie Reyneke from Saddle River. She is our longest. She is 6’4 with a really high release. She will see time. Then we have got a wing from Cleveland Ohio, Vanessa Smith, she actually started in our scrimmage the other day. She is a really long wing who is really aggressive off the dribble. Then we have got a little lead guard, Taylor Brown, who is about 5’8. As soon as they adjust to Princeton and adjust to the pace of play, they will help us consistently.”

Banghart is expecting more consistent play from her sophomores, Amanda Berntsen (1.7 points per game in 2012-13), Annie Tarakchian (2.9 points), Alex Wheatley (5.7 points and 3.7 rebounds), Taylor Williams (1.4 points), and Michelle Miller (6.7 points and 3.0 rebounds).

“I think the sophomore class, the group of five that played together some last year, all came back better,” asserted Banghart.

“They are stronger. They understand the rigors of our season. They are more skilled. They are noticeably better. I think that part of that came from what happened all year when they had to guard really good players and part of it came with knowing that we were graduating a lot.”

Banghart is getting a lot of intangibles from her senior co-captains Nicole Hung (5.8 points) and Kristen Helmstetter (8.8 points and 5.1 rebounds) along with battle-tested point guard Blake Dietrick (8.0 points and 3.4 rebounds).

“I embrace the journey with this group because of the leadership,” said Banghart.

“I spend a lot of time dealing with these three people and they spend a lot of time dealing with everybody else. I can’t say enough about the leadership of this group.”

The trio figures to lead the way on the court as well. “Hung is coming back from an injury and she isn’t as healthy yet as she needs to be,” said Banghart of the 5’11 guard who was limited to five games last season

“Her commitment to her training and to the team through injury has been admirable. Kristen, our other captain, just does everything for us. She’ll play at either the wing or the post or both depending on whoever else is ready. She has really been the floor leader on both sides of the ball and definitely will be very, very key to our success. Blake has emerged as our starting lead guard. She scored a lot last year and played really well. The team starts and stops with this group.”

Dietrick, for her part, is looking forward to getting the season underway. I am really excited,” said the 5’10 Dietrick, who led the Tigers with 52 three-pointers last winter.

“Our young kids are awesome. They have so much energy and passion for the game. They want to fight everyday just like we do. They are not afraid when we are down their throats about something. They accept it, they listen to it, they want to get better, and I really appreciate and respect that. I think we are going to do pretty well.”

The 6’0 Helmstetter, a second-team All-Ivy performer last season, is ready to stand tall for the Tigers.

“I think my role is a leader on the court,” said Helmstetter, a native of nearby Bridgewater, N.J. “Last year, it was a little bit more of a comfort role, I had four seniors on the court to play with and I just took that back seat and rolled with them. This year both Hung and I have really grown and stepped up into this role. I am just excited. I have four new people to start with. I started with Blake a few times last year so I know we have good chemistry and I can’t wait to gain that chemistry with the other players on our team.”

In Banghart’s view, the team needs to develop some grit to go with its chemistry in order to stay atop the Ivies.

“We just have got to build the right base and build the right blocks defensively, on the glass and the toughness points,” said Banghart, whose club was picked to finish first in the Ivy preseason media poll.

“I think if this team gains toughness on a daily basis, I really like where we will be at the end of the year.”

The Tigers face a tough opening assignment with the road contest at Rutgers.

“I don’t even know who is going to start against Rutgers,” said Banghart. “It is not a race for who is ready first, it is race for who is good enough when it is time. We scrimmaged Temple and I thought we did some really nice things. We scrimmage again this weekend. Everyday we get a little bit different and a little bit better. I think Rutgers is a really good test. It is on the road, which is also difficult, given that we have so much inexperience.”

Banghart is confident that the Tigers can be really good again this winter. “I wouldn’t sugar coat this,” said Banghart.

“As a coach I would rather tell you that I wasn’t happy. It is a good  group. We have a long way to go but I think we have the potential to be pretty darn good which is awesome. To be honest, I think we are reloaded. I don’t think there is any trouble in Tigertown.”

And that could spell trouble for Princeton’s Ivy foes.

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