By Greg Bates
DE PERE – Coming off three straight undefeated seasons in the Bay Conference, the West De Pere girls’ basketball program is churning out solid teams consistently.
But after eight seniors graduated last year — including its top five scorers — it might be more difficult to win a fourth consecutive conference championship.
Fifth-year Head Coach Chris Abaray said the unknowns excite him.
“We graduated eight girls last year — and not just eight girls, but some key players who were big parts of our program: Alexa Thomson, Casey Jepson and Bailey Baeten,” he said. “These were all-conference players for multiple years. To replace kids like that, it’s going to be tough. Right now, we have four freshmen on varsity and a number of them are going to contribute.”
West De Pere, which was 17-5 last season, will have to replace 84% of its scoring.
One big boost will be the addition of Imani Ninham, who missed all of last year with a torn ACL.
As a sophomore, Ninham was the team’s second-leading scorer at 13 points per game and drained a team-high 56 3-pointers.
“I’m excited for one last year and playing in front of my family with people in the gym because of last year with COVID,” Ninham said. “I learned lots last year.”
Abaray said getting Ninham back on the court is huge.
“We’ve always been about balance, so we’re not going to put anything all on her,” he said. “We want her to knock down shots – she’ll have that autonomy. We have lots of other girls who can make shots. We have a couple of freshmen who are going to hit shots. Katie Waukau can shoot the heck out of the ball, too.”
Waukau put in 3.2 points per game last season, while fellow junior Victoria Karchinski scored 2.4 points per contest.
The only returning player who was a partial starter last season is Makenzie Konop.
The senior forward/center averaged 2.4 points per game.
“(Konop) has got to fill a big role for being a post,” Ninham said. “We’ve always played with each other, so we have good chemistry already. Katie, too, I depend on her with the ball-handling and us two working together to get shots down.”
Abaray sees Konop getting inside and providing a solid post presence.
“We’re going to look for that interior post presence,” Abaray said. “She does a nice job of making contact and screening. We’ll need her to be a good cleanup person around the rim.”
West De Pere has four freshmen who Abaray is expecting to log plenty of minutes.
Ella Francois, Madisyn Berggren, Faith Walder and Ava VanEss make up a solid freshmen class.
“They’re talented,” Abaray said. “If they weren’t ready, we wouldn’t have them up.”
Abaray said he’s hoping Noelle Runke and Alana Noggle, both junior posts, will provide some inside help.
“We have 12 or 13 girls who we’re going to be taking a hard look,” he said. “It’s nice because you have fouls to give. We have lots of the same kids, and they’re going to have to come honest by the minutes to compete.”
Abaray said he anticipates his starting lineup will evolve as the year wears on.
“We’re going to have some growing pains early and often,” he said. “Even defensively, we’re bringing lots of girls into the mix who are expected to play at a high level. We’re going to have some growing pains with that. It’s going to be lots of learning on the fly. Our expectation is you ask questions, but we keep going.”
Despite a young lineup, expectations for the program are still high.
“We’re rebuilding, we are retooling,” Abaray said. “The expectation is to compete for conference titles every year. As inexperienced as we are, we have the pieces, we’re prepared and they know what they’re doing. The goal is to win conference again.”
Over the past three seasons, West De Pere is 40-0 in the Bay Conference.
Its last league loss was Jan. 19, 2018.
Xavier is coming off a runner-up finish in the Bay last season at 8-3.
With almost its entire roster returning, it will be a frontrunner for the conference crown.
Menasha and its star Mara Reider will have a good team after going 8-4 in conference a season ago.
“We’ll be in the mix,” Abaray said. “Xavier is the favorite from what they return, but we don’t plan on relinquishing what we’ve been doing these last few years.”
2021-22 West De Pere girls’ basketball regular-season schedule
12/7 – @ Seymour
12/10 – @ Menasha
12/17 – Xavier
12/21 – @ Kaukauna
12/23 – @ Ashwaubenon
12/28 – @ Kettle Moraine – 4:30 p.m.
1/3 – Plymouth
1/7 – @ Shawano
1/11 – Green Bay East
1/15 – @ De Pere – 3 p.m.
1/18 – @ New London
1/21 – Seymour
1/25 – @ Appleton West
1/27 – Menasha
1/28 – @ Kewaunee
2/4 – @ Xavier
2/11 – Shawano
2/14 – @ Oshkosh West
2/17 – @ Green Bay East
Sports editor’s note: All games begin at 7 p.m. unless otherwise noted.