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AMES – At Iowa State, the bar is always set high, but to reach new heights, the Cyclones are pushing up something new.
When you play in the Big 12, a little extra muscle can go a long way. Iowa State will be aiming for its seventh-straight trip to the NCAA Tournament when the season tips off on Nov. 11 against Western Illinois.
To help continue their stellar run, the Cyclones went to work in the weight room as well as on the court. This offseason, Iowa State hired a full-time strength and conditioning coach, Pete Link.
After a summer and early fall of workouts tailored to their specific needs, the Cyclones are more ready than ever physically for another brutal schedule.
“I could tell (the workouts) were going good because I was hearing complaints from the players about two weeks in,” Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly said at the team’s annual media day. “They didn’t like it, so that was perfect and it was going well.”
The Cyclones’ slate this year includes 20 games against teams who played in a postseason tournament last season. During 18 league games, Iowa State will face the defending national champions in Baylor and six other teams that made the NCAA or NIT brackets.
“Our league is one that there are no easy nights,” Fennelly said.
In order to combat the rigors of the Big 12, Fennelly shifted around his coaching staff and hired Link. Now instead of wearing down in the second half of the season, the Cyclones are hoping players like Anna Prins and Hallie Christofferson will still be in peak condition.
Sophomore guard Brynn Williamson said she already feels stronger and quicker on the court.
“I feel a lot better heading into tomorrow (than last season),” Williamson said about the first practice. “It’s not going to be wear and tear on my body. It’s going to be hard work, but Coach Link has prepared us this long that we should be dead tired from working hard and not because we are out of shape.”
If the plan works, Iowa State’s opponents could be the ones gasping for air.
Poppens leads posts
What else is there to say about Chelsea Poppens? The Iowa State senior will leave Ames after this season as one of the toughest, grittiest and best players to ever wear the Cardinal and Gold.
But first, there is still business to take care of. Poppens is hoping to lead a group of talented post players back to the NCAA Tournament.
“I think any coach (at Iowa State), including Coach (Paul) Rhoads would love to have Chelsea on their team,” Fennelly said.
That’s because Poppens is a beast in the paint. Last season, the Aplington native was the only player in the Big 12 to average a double-double (14.2 points, 10.6 rebounds per game).
Poppens was voted unanimous first team all-Big 12 for her efforts in 2011-12 and has already been tabbed as a preseason all-Big 12 pick this year.
“She has a chance to have a monster senior year,” Fennelly said.
The key for Iowa State will be getting consistent, improved play from the Cyclones around Poppens. Hallie Christofferson and Anna Prins both have the potential to put up big numbers any given night.
Prins in particular is dangerous because she can score inside and hit the three, but she averaged just 7.9 points and 4.4 rebounds last season. Those numbers should go up now that Prins is finally healthy after missing 150 practices combined her first three seasons.
“Anna Prins is healthier than she’s ever been,” Fennelly said.
Christofferson – who averaged 10.2 points and 6.0 rebounds – will be bounce between forward and guard for Iowa State. Her versatility is a potential matchup problem for opponents.
“She’s like a football player that you put in the slot, you put in the backfield, you snap the ball too,” Fennelly said. “You just figure out ways to get her the ball because she can score it.”
Christofferson said in the offseason, she worked to improve her 3-point shooting and her left hand in the post.
“If there are little guards, I can go inside and post up and see what happens,” Christofferson said.
Senior Amanda Zimmerman and freshman Madison Baier are also expected to be in the mix in the post. Zimmerman has flashed scoring potential in the past.
Moody ready for round two
Nikki Moody proved she could go toe-to-toe with the Big 12’s best last season. The Euless, Texas native led Iowa State with 133 assists while handling the point guard duties.
That’s impressive for anyone, but especially for a freshman. Unfortunately for the Cyclones, those 133 assists also came with 110 turnovers.
Now, Fennelly is expecting Moody to take the next step.
“If the highlight on her resume is that she made the all-Big 12 freshman team, she didn’t do her job and I didn’t do my job,” Fennelly said. “She’s got to develop, she’s got to get to that next level.”
Moody won’t have the luxury of looking to departed seniors Lauren Mansfield or Chassidy Cole when things break down. Instead, Moody’s teammates will be looking to her.
“I’m trying to step up and take that (leadership) role,” Moody said. “The more experience I have, the more experience I give, the more comfortable I feel speaking.”
Fellow sophomore Brynn Williamson should be able to help Moody in the backcourt, especially when it comes to scoring points. Last season, Williamson hit 48 3-pointers, including a trey in 25 of the 30 games she played.
Knowing opponents will key on her outside the arc, Williamson worked to improve her ability to drive to the hoop.
“The coaches have talked to me a lot about how when the other team knows what you do well, they take that away from you,” Williamson said. “It makes it easier if you can create a play when they take the 3-point shot away from you.”
Iowa State will also count on a duo of talented freshmen to provide quality minutes at guard. Emiah Bingley and Nicole “Kidd” Blaskowsky could see significant playing time right away. Sophomore Fallon Ellis is also back and year more experienced.