From her days as an assistant coach at Western Washington University, Jennifer Childress had a clear vision for how to build a successful team.
It wasn’t just to get her players to show up and play basketball — it was to get them to show up, compete and hold one another accountable.
Childress now has the player who has assumed that chief responsibility: Lacey Nicholson, a junior forward and co-captain on the Pacific Lutheran women’s basketball team
“Lacey has those innate leadership qualities and personality,” said Childress, who took over coaching duties at PLU three years ago. “She is that vocal player that really bought into the system, and is excited about being the spark of the team.”
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Nicholson, a transfer from Concordia (Oregon) University, is in her second season with PLU. She is second on the team in minutes played (31.3 per game) and third in scoring (7.2 ppg).
Those numbers do not scream all-Northwest Conference performer, but her impact extends well beyond the box score.
“This (rebuilding process) started the week after our season ended last year,” PLU guard Kaelyn Voss said. “All summer long, I saw Lacey pretty much every day. We would call up new freshmen and have them join us.”
Fellow co-captain Megan Abdo helps lead the Lutes by example — and fuels them with production — but it’s Nicholson who gets the Lutes’ attention and keeps them in line.
“She is a very vocal leader. She will say what she needs to say,” Abdo said. “Having her presence on the court, and hearing her voice really helps.”
Progress has been slow for the Lutes under Childress. But this season it has been noticeable. They are 3-3, with wins over The Evergreen State College and Hardin-Simmons of Texas. They also dropped an overtime thriller to cross-town rival Puget Sound, 79-69, earlier this month.
PLU’s season-long mantra is “buckets and gains” — and Nicholson has shown to encapsulate that perfectly.
“I’ve just always been extremely passionate about basketball,” Nicholson said. “I think it is an awesome tool to carry on later in life. I’m still going to work (hard) every day, but I’m having fun. I love the group of girls I work with each day.”
PACIFIC LUTHERAN LUTES
Coach: Jennifer Childress, third year (12-38 record).
2014-15 season: 5-20, 2-14 NWC (eighth place).
Preseason coaches’ pick: Ninth place.
Starting lineup: PG Megan Abdo, 5-7, sr.; SG Samantha Kelleigh, 5-7, jr.; SF Sarah Barnes, 5-9, sr.; PF Lacey Nicholson, 5-8, jr.; C Ionna Price, 5-10, jr.
Top reserves: C Michaela Edgers, 6-4, sr.; SG/SF Madison Green-Hayward, 5-5, jr.; PG/SG Kaelyn Voss, 5-4, so.
Key player: With more ball handlers on the roster, that should free up Abdo to be more offense-oriented in a variety of ways. The senior from Arlington averages 14.2 points per game.
Outlook: Say this for Childress, she is not waiting around for the team’s recent run of mediocrity to subside. Childress overhauled the roster with nine new players, including two impact transfers in Kelleigh (Skagit Valley CC) and Price (Highline CC), a former Bellarmine Prep standout. Kelleigh is the deep outside-shooting threat the Lutes have lacked on offense, while Price can score off the dribble as an undersized post player. PLU still will struggle against bigger teams in the half court, but the effort is there — and the wins should be coming soon.
NWC schedule (all games 6 p.m. unless noted): Jan. 8 at Linfield; Jan. 9 at George Fox, 4 p.m.; Jan. 15 vs. Lewis & Clark; Jan. 16 vs. Pacific, 4 p.m.; Jan. 22 at Whitworth; Jan. 23 at Whitman, 4 p.m.; Jan. 26 at Puget Sound; Jan. 29 vs. Willamette; Feb. 5 vs. George Fox; Feb. 6 vs. Linfield, 4 p.m.; Feb. 12 at Pacific; Feb. 13 at Lewis & Clark, 4 p.m.; Feb. 19 vs. Whitman; Feb. 20 vs. Whitworth, 4 p.m.
PUGET SOUND LOGGERS
Coach: Loree Payne, sixth year (85-47 record).
2014-15 season: 24-5, 13-3 NWC (second place).
Preseason coaches’ pick: Fourth place.
Starting lineup: PG Mikaela Limper, 5-6, so.; SG Alexis Noren, 5-10, jr.; SF Emily Sheldon, 5-11, sr.; PF Allie Wyszynski, 5-11, sr.; C Claire Fitzgerald, 5-11, so.
Top reserves: SF Katie Holland, 5-7, jr.; PG Samone Jackson, 5-4, fr.; PF Elizabeth Prewitt, 5-9, fr.
Key player: The last time UPS had a pure scorer like Sheldon was guard Kelsey McKinnis (2009-13). And Sheldon has displayed more ways to score than any player in recent memory.
Outlook: The Loggers had it all last season — balanced scoring, reliable post play and depth — in reaching the NCAA Division III playoffs. But with all the roster turnover, and young incoming players, Payne will ask a lot of Sheldon (20.3 ppg) and Noren (13.3 ppg), who make up nearly 45 percent of the scoring output this season. Limper and Jackson could form a fun playmaking point guard tandem — and will play at the same time — but the young pieces need to develop quickly so Payne can establish a more consistent rotation than in the early going.
NWC schedule (all games 6 p.m. unless noted): Jan. 8 vs. Willamette; Jan. 9 vs. Lewis & Clark, 4 p.m.; Jan. 15 vs. Pacific; Jan. 16 vs. Linfield, 4 p.m.; Jan. 22 at Whitman; Jan. 23 at Whitworth, 4 p.m.; Jan. 26 vs. Pacific Lutheran; Jan. 30 vs. George Fox; Feb. 5 at Lewis & Clark; Feb. 6 at Willamette, 4 p.m.; Feb. 12 at Linfield; Feb. 13 at Pacific, 4 p.m.; Feb. 19 vs. Whitworth; Feb. 20 vs. Whitman, 4 p.m.