It has been a long process, but, for head coach Jessica Ott and the MSOE women's basketball team, the hard work is paying off.
The Raiders are coming off their first 20-win season in school history and third place in the NACC standings.
The list of accomplishments for the team is endless. It was a special season, not just by the wins, but the progress. MSOE hosted a conference tournament game for just the second time and won a tourney game for the second time, as well.
It also posted a 6-0 record against Concordia Wisconsin, Lakeland and Edgewood, three traditional conference powers that the Raiders had defeated just 11 times combined entering the season. The CUW win was a benchmark, as it was their first since 2002.
What began as a group of women that wanted the opportunity to play has evolved to a college basketball team, then a program and is now enjoying its most successful run.
The 2014-15 season is a far cry from the humble beginnings of the MSOE women's basketball team which began in 1987-88. Unfortunately, those humble beginnings carried on for the first 10 years of the program, as the teams won just 37 games in that time.
Those squads are credited for playing hard, but success was hard to come by as the program failed to establish itself.
The first turning point came with the hiring of Laurie Krajnik, a former college standout at Division I UW-Milwaukee, in 1997. When she took over the program the school record for wins in a season was just seven games, a figure she would meet or exceed in each of her five seasons.
Depth continued to elude the Raiders during Krajnik's tenure, but wins were becoming regular and the program began to take shape. She more than doubled the program's all-time win total with 42 in her tenure. The high-water mark was an 11-14 record in 2000-01. Even that season was not without its obstacles, as MSOE suited up just five players for a game at North Park because the starting center had a job interview1.
"The group that played for Laurie, you can tell when they come back, they are a very tight-knit group," Ott said. "They only played with 5-7 players on their squad every year. When they come back, they all want to make sure (assistant coach) Pete (Jankowski) is there and Laurie is there, which is pretty cool. They remain close."
The next season would be the start of something new, as Ott joined the program as a young assistant coach. She would then take over for Krajnik just one year later.
Ott finished her hall of fame playing career2 at UW-Stevens Point in 2000 and began a coaching career at Stevens Point Area High School the next season. She helped coach SPASH to a 26-1 record and a runner-up finish at the state tournament. After that season, a chance meeting with a former neighbor put in motion Ott's move to Milwaukee.
"I did not even know about MSOE until (director of athletics) Dan (Harris) called me about being an assistant coach," Ott said. "My old neighbor in New Glarus used to be a business professor at MSOE and he came back to New Glarus for my parents' 25th anniversary party. He told me about MSOE and he gave my name to Dan, who called me about the job. It was strictly part-time as an administrative assistant and a small stipend as the assistant coach and I said 'yes.'"
Her first season on staff featured just a six-player rotation and eight players on the roster. Following the season, Krajnik (by this time, Laurie Brock) stepped down to start a family. Despite being a young coach with little experience, Harris chose Ott to take over the team.
"I had to interview with Brian Good, who was our associate AD and men's coach, to talk X's and O's," Ott said. "Then, Dan interviewed me to get the administration side of things. He took me for lunch and offered it to me."
"Jessica has great passion and enthusiasm for coaching," said Harris in announcing the hire. "She is the ideal young coach to continue the progress of this program that began under Coach Brock. Jess has been a great addition to our staff this year and I am looking forward to the success that I know she will have."
"My biggest obstacle was running my own program," Ott said. "I was really an assistant for two years. I was a varsity assistant at a high school, going onto MSOE as an assistant. (When I got here) I felt like I was more of a player because I had to practice with them and I didn't really assist with any of the scouting or practice planning. All I did was the recruiting aspect."
Ott carried over many of the values established by Krajnik, but was able to elevate the program's recruiting efforts.
"We would recruit kids that were on the bench (of their high school team)," Ott said. "It would not be the star players, or even the starters. I think my first big recruit was Courtney Femling. She was the fourth-best player on her team, but the defensive stopper. She came here and did everything. It got us on board. We got Catherine Chappell after that and that helped us move toward building a program rather than fielding a team."
The results followed. In Ott's first season as head coach, the Raiders matched their record from the year before and equaled the school record of 11 wins the following season.
Chappell became the first star of the Ott era, as the program's first Kodak All-American (honorable mention in 2007) and she earned Lake Michigan Conference Player of the Year honors in the last year of the conference in 2006.
"In the early years, we had a ton of 'role' players," Ott said. "We didn't have a ton of Courtneys. We got Chappell, then we had two stars and had a bunch of nice, complimentary players."
MSOE saw a dip to just one win its first season in the NACC following Chappell's graduation. But, another turning point was on the horizon with the 2008 recruiting class.
"We were able to take another big step when I got (Carol) Cayo, (Jamie) Janczak, Margi (Marguerite Wellstein), Megan Syverson and Kathleen Collingbourne," Ott said. "That was a big recruiting class. It was a group that was better than complimentary players and they were also really good leaders."
Cayo, Syverson and Wellstein were all freshman starters as the team went 13-13 in 2008-09. The Raiders posted the biggest turnaround in NCAA Division III that season, set a school record for wins in a season and posted the first .500 record. The group put together the best four-year span in program history, racking up 49 wins with another school-record 17 in the first winning season in team history (17-10) as seniors in 2011-12.
"When those players were seniors, all of the players underneath them looked up to them," Ott said. "Carol demanded a lot. She held them accountable and that is the way this team is now. We have some really strong leaders that are holding their teammates accountable."
Like Chappell before her, Cayo became another breakout star. Also named Kodak All-America Honorable Mention, she was the CoSIDA Academic All-American of the Year and a finalist for NCAA Woman of the Year. She stands with Chappell atop many of the school's career statistical lists.
Unfortunately, there was still work to do. During the 2008-12 run, Ott was also named the head softball coach and, by her own admission, could not devote as much time to recruiting.
"For those four years, I was coaching softball at the same time, so I couldn't spend as much time recruiting as I wanted to because I was spread so thin," Ott said. "Once I stopped coaching softball, I was able to spend more time recruiting and go hard after a player like Megan (Kroll), Holly (Denfeld), Shaylan (Reardon)."
The team suffered another drop in form, winning just two games in 2012-13. The bright spot of that season was the emergence of Megan Kroll, who was named the NACC Freshman of the Year despite a season-ending injury.
"When we won 17 games with the 2011-12 team, those guys were really determined and had really good team chemistry. I was really proud of them," Ott said. "Then the following year, we went 2-22 and that team busted their tail. We got drilled every game and they still came to practice and really worked hard. My seniors this past year talked about how they stuck together (that season) and how rewarding it was for them to go 20-7. It makes me proud that they stuck through it and team chemistry was really good. It was a tough year, but it was really rewarding."
Two-time All-NACC First-Team selection Holly Denfeld led a six-player freshman class in 2013-14, one which introduced two new starters into the lineup, and helped propel the Raiders back to a .500 team at 13-13—the ninth-best improvement in NCAA Division III that season.
Kroll was lost to a season-ending injury after just 16 games, but proved her capabilities with an All-NACC Second Team nod in her limited time. Meanwhile, Denfeld was named to the All-NACC First Team and gave the team back-to-back NACC Freshman of the Year awards.
With Kroll and Denfeld, the talent level on the roster showed it was continuing to rise. But, more importantly, the talent in the depth was rising, as well, with a rotation that was nine players deep.
The roster got another bump the next season with addition of sophomore transfer Shaylan Reardon from St. Thomas (Minn.). A Milwaukee-area product, she was targeted by Ott coming out of high school and opted to return home after a season. She was a key piece in pushing the team to the next step.
"Shay denied us the first time, but she came back," Ott said. "That has really helped. We have been bringing in one piece at a time slowly."
As for keeping the run going, just two seniors were lost from last season and all five starters return. Three starters will be juniors, while Ott has lined up her biggest recruiting class to date.
"This year's roster, everybody I was recruiting said 'yes,'" Ott said. "I'm not sure if it was our 20-win season or what MSOE has to offer (that helped us land recruits). But, I was able to spend more time calling these kids, going to watch them, and that has helped."
Ott has made sure that momentum will continue into the future. She has brought in an eight-player recruiting class, her biggest ever. Even with five starters and three all-conference players returning, the new freshman group expects to have a couple players that could fight for rotation spots early on and carry on the new tradition in years to come.
"[M]y junior year when we showed up for a basketball game with only five players since our center was at a job interview in Florida. We practiced a four-man defense prior to the game just in case we got into foul trouble. When we ran out for warm-ups the referees were asking where the rest of our team was. I was so proud of our team that night for playing the way we did, never giving up and leaving it all out on the court. We lost the game by only three points (54-51 at North Park)."
2 – Ott was inducted into the UW-Stevens Point Hall of Fame in October of 2013.