St. Norbert women’s basketball team had local feel, finishes strong
By Greg Bates
DE PERE – The St. Norbert College women’s basketball team has always had a local feel.
Five of the 18 athletes from the recently-completed season played their high school ball in De Pere, Green Bay or Pulaski.
Those five combined this season to average almost half of St. Norbert’s points per game (28.7), and three of the girls were starters who were in the top five on the team in scoring.
Olivia DeCleene and Kaycee Gierczak played against one another during high school and were two of St. Norbert’s upperclassmen team leaders.
“I was excited when I found out I’d be able to play with Olivia,” Gierczak said. “We knew she was great. Her passes are amazing and it was fun to play with her.”
DeCleene, a 2017 De Pere graduate, was the starting point guard, while Gierczak, a 2018 Notre Dame Academy graduate, started in the post.
“It was a cool feeling,” DeCleene said. “Playing against Kaycee in high school and then being here the last few years. I heard about Casey Jepson coming in. It’s cool to get local athletes coming to St. Norbert. It brings a crowd in.”
Freshman Casey Jepson came onto the team this year and added a spark with her shooting.
The 2021 West De Pere graduate is younger than DeCleene and Gierczak, but she said she knew her teammates’ talents before coming to St. Norbert.
“I remember them from high school,” Jepson said. “I also remember playing against Natalie Cerrato in high school and guarding her.”
Cerrato, a 2019 De Pere graduate, played in 19 games this season for St. Norbert.
Also on the roster, Emma Wiese, a 2019 Pulaski graduate, played in seven games.
All about having fun, winning
St. Norbert, which finished the season 19-8, played well all year.
The team tallied its most wins since the 2016-17 season and was 14-3 in the Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference (NACC).
The Green Knights lost in the championship game of the NACC tournament to Wisconsin Lutheran College, 51-43.
Gierczak said one of the keys to success was the team’s chemistry.
“Compared to the last couple of years, the team bonded well together, on and off the court,” she said. “It was fun to get to know the girls and go through this experience with them.”
DeCleene agreed it was the off-court interaction that pulled the team together.
“We were a close-knit group,” she said. “We were able to hang with one another. On the court, it came down to practices. We practiced well together, and that translated to games.”
Because some of the local players competed against one another in high school and with each other in club basketball, they’ve been able to step into the program and play well together.
“It helps when guarding them and playing against them, you know their strengths,” Jepson said. “They could challenge me because they know what I’m good at and what I need to work on.”
The St. Norbert players became more cohesive last year as a unit because the program didn’t play any games – they only practiced – because of COVID-19.
This year’s roster was almost the same as a season ago, as just three players — who were all underclassmen — exited the program.
Three of a kind
In her first year starting, Gierczak led the team in scoring (11.6 points) and rebounds (7) per game.
“I give lots of credit to my teammates,” Gierczak said. “They were the ones who swung me the ball and got it to me.”
The 22-year-old logged four double-doubles this season, including a 17-point, 11-rebound performance against Concordia Wisconsin Jan. 18.
The 22-year-old DeCleene also had a career year in her first season as an every-game starter.
Despite being only 5-foot-4, she averaged 9.3 points (third on the team) and 5.3 rebounds per game.
“I’ve never looked at myself as I need to score,” DeCleene said. “I wanted to do whatever I could to help my team win games. There were games I needed to be more aggressive and certain games I needed to facilitate. I love passing and getting assists.”
The 18-year-old Jepson stepped into the lineup as a true freshman.
After averaging 13.3 points per game as a senior last season at West De Pere, Jepson averaged 5.3 points per game this season.
“It was intimidating because we had a bunch of great players,” Jepson said.
In her third collegiate game, Jepson scored a team-high 14 points against Carroll University Nov. 13.
“As the season went on, I got more comfortable in my role and not always passing it off to other people,” she said.
Because COVID-19 shut down many NCAA teams last year, student-athletes were awarded an additional year of eligibility.
Gierczak used her extra year this season.
“I wasn’t going to take it at first, but I did some thinking,” she said. “I had some extra credits because I transferred from Eau Claire. I had extra credits to get in, so I could stretch it out if I wanted to.”
An education major, Gierczak will graduate from St. Norbert in May 2023.
She said she hopes to stay in the area and get a teaching job.
DeCleene also used her “COVID year” this year.
Because she missed her freshman season due to a torn ACL, DeCleene has another year of eligibility.
She said she’s considering coming back for a final year but hasn’t decided yet.
“I’m not shutting it off, but financially, what’s best for me and my future – I’ve got to look at that,” DeCleene said.