Injuries allow NU a glimpse into future

In Tuesday’s victory over the Chicago Challengers exhibition team, two sophomores stepped up big for the Wildcats. Guard Emily Butler piloted the Northwestern offense and drained timely three-pointers, and center Leslie Dolland clogged the middle and grabbed key rebounds down the stretch.

While the Cats’ future leaders got a chance to shine, two senior leaders of the present could only watch — both sidelined with injuries. Guard Dana Leonard, unable to play for at least another week because of mononucleosis, draped herself with blankets as the game wound down. Center Tami Sears, hampered by a stress fracture in her leg, sat at the end of the bench, tapping her foot.

NU came away with a split in its two warmup games. But if the Cats are to improve on last season’s 10th-place Big Ten finish and their 7-21 record, they can ill-afford to be without their two leading scorers much longer.

“With Tami and Dana out, we’re decimated by injuries,” coach June Olkowski said. “Neither will play Monday (in NU’s season opener at Northern Illinois). We didn’t start the year with them so we don’t know what it would be like to have them on the floor.”

But a glance at last season’s stats is a quick way to see what the Cats will be missing.

Sears is NU’s main force in the middle on both sides of the ball — leading the team in scoring (11.9 a game) and rebounding (7.4) last season. She recorded seven double-doubles in the season.

Feeding her the ball will be Leonard, an adept ball-handler who led the team in three-point percentage (.370). She will share time with Butler in directing the NU offense.

“It’s been difficult playing without them so far,” Dolland said. “They are sorely missed on the floor. But we realize that we don’t have them, so we have to focus on who we do have out there.”

Forwards Billee Russell and Michelle Zylstra will share the burden of the inside work without Sears. Russell led the Cats with 15 points in their first exhibition game, a 81-71 loss to the Houston Jaguars.

Zylstra, a solid shooter and quickly developing freshman, has been a reliable option for NU’s offensive attack, scoring 22 points in the Cats’ two exhibition games. The two are helping to minimize the loss of the 6-foot-2 Sears.

“I’m not thinking about (lack of size) too much,” Dolland said. “Russell and Zylstra are holding their own inside. They aren’t true post players, but they complement each other well.”

NU’s lack of depth has pressed walk-on freshman Courtney Koester into immediate duty in the exhibition games. The 5-foot-5 guard will spell Butler and Leonard.

NU is a team bruised, battered and limping into the regular season. With only six or seven players at full speed in practice, the Cats have had to rely on their supporting cast for help.

And the bench wasn’t the Cats’ strength last season.

“We have some new players getting reps,” Olkowski said. “We can hopefully get some points from them this year.”

The Cats have worked on blocking out and eliminating turnovers, but they clearly have room to improve. NU allowed the Challengers 46 points in the paint and 20 offensive rebounds while coughing the ball up 21 times.

And NU, with an offense that is at times stagnant and hesitant to penetrate, will need to avoid frustration when its first or second option is taken away, Olkowski said.

Even with these weaknesses in the early going, the team has come out of practice feeling good.

“We’ve been having shorter practices this season because we’re getting things done quicker,” Butler said. “It’s been tense at times, but overall it’s more comfortable and we know what to expect.”

Starting her second season as NU’s coach, Olkowski has been able to get past introductions and concentrate on the finer aspects of basketball. She said the team accomplished more in the first month of practice than it had during her entire first season at the helm.

And with a team that returns four starters and nine letter-winners from last year’s squad, her expectations go beyond notching a few more wins.

“I want to instill a type of camaraderie into our program,” Olkowski said. “Every player should feel the euphoric feeling of overcoming limitations.”