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Ressel, Lions didn't skip a beat, but how?

Feb. 16—Team comparison Coach Ronnie Ressel sees this team being similar on the defensive end outside of not having a similar shot-blocker like Madi Stokes from last year. The defense also isn't able to pressure the ball out top as much as it did with Lacy.But he believes the defense is stronger in terms of clogging the lane. Offensively, Ressel admitted the team relied on Lacy's scoring ability and then passing to the open player. The Lions were very reliant on her play on offense because of the talent she possessed as an individual whether it was scoring or setting up teammates. Now, the Lions use multiple players and find their scoring from a variety of options. There are four players averaging 10 or more points and last year there were just two.

Missouri Southern women's basketball head coach Ronnie Ressel led his team to a 29-7 record last year and a Central Region championship appearance in the NCAA Division II national tournament.

But he lost eight players from that team — three to graduation, three to transfer and two who just decided to stop playing — and six played in the majority of the Lions' games.

MSSU averaged 71.5 points per game last year. Those six players who were in most games totaled 49.4 points of production. One of those was All-American, All-Central Region, MIAA Player of the Year and MIAA Freshman of the year Lacy Stokes — who had garnered such awards over the past two seasons.

"It is challenging. I had a buddy of mine tell me when you kind of have a culture set on how you do things and you have good, quality people returning, that can make it a little bit easier," Ressel said.

But the Lions also brought in seven new faces. Only one was a freshman — Carolina Crawford from Willard High School.

The others were all transfers with experience — Hannah Burg, Kennady Roach, Reese Webb and Morgan Meyers are junior college transfers; sophomore Maggie Sockey spent her freshman year at Division I Oral Roberts; and Brandi Hudson is a senior from Division II Lenoir-Rhyne.

"We felt in recruiting and everything else we brought in some really good talent that's going to fit into our system and what we do offensively and defensively," Ressel said.

He noted that bringing a team together is a part of the job every year, even if you don't lose eight players from the team. Part of that is team outings like ax throwing or dinner together.

"Doing things off the court to where they can see each other not as basketball players and us coaches as human beings as well," he said.

From finding the right players to bringing them together as a team, it has all worked out as the Lions are sitting at 18-5 and just lost their first game in over two months. And they're right back where they were last year, being 19-4 after 23 games of the 2022-23 season.

"I think coach Ressel has done a great job making sure that all of us are on the same page," MSSU guard Kaitlin Hunnicutt said. "We all have the same goal in mind, which is winning a championship. He helped get the new kids on page early and making sure everybody knows what their role is on the team and that their role is important."

As a 22-year-old athlete, Hunnicutt can't begin to imagine what her coach went through this offseason.

"I can't even imagine the stress he felt losing basically half the team and then bringing in all these new girls," she added. "For him, I know he's a very personable coach, so it's getting to know these new kids and then getting them to mesh with returners. ... I think he's great at that."

It wasn't the start to the season the Lions had hoped for. Especially after winning the first two games of the year. They went on to lose four of the next five and fall to 3-4 overall.

That was just two games into conference play and the Lions lost both of those conference games. Ressel recalls his defense being "nonexistent" for the most part during that time.

"When we were sitting at 3-4, I was wondering if we were going to be (end of year) over .500," Ressel said. "That was because in the MIAA if you don't make that adjustment and win a couple of games, the confidence in the kids goes way down."

Ressel says that defensive effort changed and that's how the Lions rattled off 15 straight wins before falling to Central Missouri last Saturday.

Fifteen wins in a row is no easy accomplishment. That was just two shy of the Lions' mark in the 2021-22 season, whene they won 17 straight before falling in the MIAA Tournament championship. Ressel spoke on that accomplishment this year.

"Very pleased, and I won't say surprised because I knew we had the talent level here; we just had to pull that consistent effort out on the defensive side. To win 15 straight games is impressive because this league is so good," he said.

Hunnicutt talked about the group's ability to rebound after the difficult start.

"We know how to play with each other and we have confidence in each other and we've built that trust," she said. "We have a special group. I love everyone out here."

FINAL STRETCH

In the final five games, MSSU is in a chase with Missouri Western for the MIAA regular season title. Both teams have three losses in conference play. The Griffons are a half-game ahead after a win midweek while the Lions didn't have a midweek game this week.

Neither team will face one another the rest of the regular season so both teams will control their own destiny. For the Lions that will begin against Pittsburg State at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at home.

"We have to come out with great energy and effort," Ressel said. "Because Pitt State is so good offensively. They score the ball at such a high rate and high efficiency."

MSSU has rebuilt and not skipped a beat. It happened through finding the right players and regrouping after the first seven games. Now that work has them in line for a conference title.

"This is why you put in all the work in September and October to be able to win a conference championship in the regular season," Ressel said. "There's only a few teams every year that have a chance to win a conference championship."

COACH OF THE YEAR?

Ressel won MIAA Coach of the Year two seasons ago. With the work it took to get this team back to where it is, there's no denying he could be in line for that award again.

"It's not me. It's our kids. It's our staff," Ressel said. "My job is to make sure everyone else is doing their jobs and I've got two great assistants that do their jobs extremely well. ... This is 13 players, three coaches and a trainer that's putting this together."