RACINE — The perception was that it was going to be trying season for the Racine Lutheran High School girls basketball team.
That perception was based the Crusaders being a predominantly young team, one comprised mostly of freshmen and sophomores.
But Crusaders coach Steve Shaffer wasn’t buying it. Even before the Crusaders congregated for their first practice this season, Shaffer was a model of optimism. He was firmly convinced the Crusaders’ youth could be served, that they could open some eyes.
Shaffer’s confidence stemmed from what he saw of his team this summer, especially when it played in Wisconsin Impact Tournament last July in Waukesha.
“The girls played against some very good teams in that tournament and showed they could play well against them,” Shaffer said. “I think they developed a lot of confidence from that tournament.
“It was just a matter of getting rid of some of that immaturity at times and playing more consistently. I challenged them to do that and I’ve been more than impressed that they’ve taken that challenge and run with it.”
Indeed, the Crusaders have arguably been the biggest surprise among girls’ basketball teams in the area this season. They have a 16-6 record and are getting better by the game. They have victories in nine of their last 11 games, with their losses being a one-point setback to Greendale Martin Luther and a four-point defeat to Milwaukee Saint Thomas More.
The Crusaders’ kiddie corps has conducted itself like veterans on the court, with sophomore sensation Caroline Strande playing like a senior. The 5-foot-10 Strande is averaging a rare double-double for the season with 23.1 points and 10.8 rebounds, tops on the team in both categories.
Strande’s intriguing all-around game — she is also averaging a team-high 5.6 assists — has already piqued the curiosity of college coaches.
“She’s got some (NCAA) Division I teams looking at her,” Shaffer said. “She is starting to recognize where her weaknesses are and she’s working on them and cleaning them up.”
Strande not only is a fundamentally sound player, she is quite athletic. She is perhaps the only girls player in the area who can touch the bottom of the rim. The top of the rim is 10 feet off the court.
Shaffer said Strande first accomplished touching the bottom of the rim at the end of practice about two weeks ago.
“Caroline was all excited and said, ‘I did it. I did it.’ “ Shaffer said. “I think by the time Caroline is a senior, she’ll be touching the top of the rim.”
Strande has even higher aspirations.
“I was really happy when I touched the bottom of the rim,” Strande said. “I’ve been trying to do that like for the whole season. But I really want to be able to dunk. I would love to be able to do that. I think, probably, by my senior year I’ll be able to do it.”
That’s still two years away. Strande and her teammates have more immediate goals. They open WIAA Division 4 tournament action on Friday night against Prairie (6-17) at Racine Lutheran and are hoping to make a deep run in the playoffs.
Strande feels that’s attainable. She has plenty of talented players around her, including freshman Morgann Gardner, the team’s second-leading scorer at 13.1 points per game, and junior Jackie Kellner, who is averaging 9.4 rebounds and six points.
The Crusaders have also received solid contributions from freshman Alexis Peterson and junior Jayden Davis, who are averaging 6.1 and 5.4 points, respectively, and Natalie Rosborough, the only senior on the team, who is second in assists.
Rosborough is 4-foot-11, but has made a big impact on the team.
“She is the smallest kid I’ve ever coached, but she plays with great heart,” Shaffer said. “She has been a great leader for us. She has given everything she could for our program. She’s all about our team and what it takes for the team to be successful.”
Strande said Rosborough’s team-first attitude has trickled down to her younger teammates.
“We really work well together and play good team ball,” Strande said. “We’re going to keep taking it one game at a time and, hopefully, be able to compete at state.”
“We really work well together and play good team ball. We’re going to keep taking it one game at a time and, hopefully, be able to compete at state.” Caroline Strande, Racine Lutheran basketball player