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Looking back at how Knox College's women's basketball team made history
By Mike Trueblood,
There may be few pleasures in life that exceed the feeling of getting underestimated and then shattering all expectations.
So, you can imagine how the Knox College women's basketball team feels these days after producing the best season in their history.
Picked in the preseason to tie for third place in the Midwest Conference, the Prairie Fire not only won the MWC title with a 15-1 record, but the team also earned a trip last week to the NCAA Division III tourney and finished with a 22-6 overall record.
All were firsts in a program which first took the court in 1973.
"Being an underdog is an easy road for me to take," said second-year coach Kira Mowen. "It should get to any competitor that thinks they didn't get the credit they deserved.
"Next year, I hope they pick us eighth."
Knox's season ended with a 68-56 loss to Loras in the MWC semifinals March 3 in a game where they trailed 36-26 at the half.
The ending didn't tarnish the season's accomplishments, however, and could serve as a stepping stone for the program to even better things.
"I think we can continue to push," said Mowen, whose team last year finished second in the MWC. "I don't think Knox needs to be at the bottom every year. It needs to be at the top."
How the run began
Mowen was hired to replace Emily Cline in the summer of 2021 bringing a college background formed exclusively at the NCAA Division I level.
After playing at Illinois and Youngstown State, she made assistant coaching stops at Davidson, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Monmouth University in New Jersey.
"When I took the job, it had every potential to be a good spot and I wondered why not?" Mowen said of her move to Division III.
"But it was the relationships and working with players and recruits that kind of sold me."
Knox posted a 12-13 record in 2021-22 and with a second-place finish in the MWC standings, earned a trip to the league playoffs.
Building the roster
The Prairie Fire returned four starters and had seven seniors, including three fifth-year players when the season began.
Mowen brought in only one first-year player, Kylee Callahan, who became the MWC's Newcomer of the Year.
"I firmly believe in a small nucleus," said Mowen. "I don't believe in a JV team. I believe every player on the roster can contribute. I don't believe in a roster of 24."
Changing the mindset
According to Mowen, the biggest change in her team from her first year to the second was their acceptance of the "buy in" required for success.
"Some things we did in the fall, we did not do last year," she said. "We added some agility and conditioning drills which was driven by my assistant Brett Vana and it helped with our stamina and defense.
"You got to have people who believe in that. Then it's a matter of putting it together."
How the season played out
Knox never lost more than one game in a row, swept rival Monmouth College 57-53 and 45-38 and posted a 13-game winning streak near the end of the season.
But the turning point of the season may have come in a 74-63 loss to Principia on Dec. 2.
"Whether or not you call it a turning point it was a matter of me getting into their heads," said Mowen of a serious postgame conversation she had with her team.
"Right after that, we won every single conference game. I got to them. We became a better team and they gave me more than they had the rest of the season."
Fifth year Catessa Duran and senior Kristin Herndon earned all-MWC first team spots at the end of the year.
Catessa averaged 10.2 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, Herndon 13.2 points and 8.6 rebounds.
Looking to the future
Knox will have 11 players returning, two of them will be fifth-year players. Mowen said her recruiting plans call for bringing in five or six new players.
A look at the Prairie Fire roster will find a definite lean toward players from the southwest part of the U.S., with four from Tucson, Arizona.
"They had a very good recruiting pipeline there before I got here," said Mowen. "It's my goal to get more players from Illinois but maintain the pipeline we have."