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WOMEN'S BASKETBALL: Northland women ranked first in national poll

THIEF RIVER FALLS -- Rebuilding is an annual job for Shannon Nelson. It is part of being a coach in a junior-college athletic program. Only this season, Nelson is rebuilding a national championship team. Crystal Amundson and Shammara Christian ar...

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Shannon Nelson

THIEF RIVER FALLS -- Rebuilding is an annual job for Shannon Nelson. It is part of being a coach in a junior-college athletic program.

Only this season, Nelson is rebuilding a national championship team. Crystal Amundson and Shammara Christian are the lone starters back from last season’s Northland Community and Technical College team that won the National Junior College Athletic Association Division III women’s national basketball tournament.

“In a four-year college, you have three classes coming back that know what the program is about,’’ Nelson said. “In junior college, you’re basically starting new every year because there is so much turnover. I knew we’d have to play a lot of freshmen.

“But it was way easier to recruit this year. It’s nice when you can tell girls, ‘Hey, we just won a national championship.’ For some girls who were on the fence about where to go, I think that helped. They want to be a part of that.’’

The Pioneers are off to a 9-2 start, with both losses to Division I programs, North Dakota State College of Science and Bismarck State. Northland is ranked first in the latest DIII national rankings.

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“It feels different this year,’’ Amundson said. “I think there’s a little more sense of urgency in the way we play because we want to get back to nationals. And we know we’re the one everybody will be trying to knock off because we’re the defending champions.’’

Graduating from the starting lineup of the 27-1 championship team were Sarah Durand, Jenna Lundon and Ashley Lindgren. Durand, the DIII national player of the year, is playing at Bemidji State. Lundon is starting at Mayville State.

Minus the dominant post play of Durand, around whom Northland ran its offense, the Pioneers have a different look this season.

“We don’t have an inside presence like Sarah,’’ Nelson said. “We’re more of a running team. We have athletes who can run and create offense off the dribble. We have good 3-point shooters. And we’re more balanced. It’s hard for defenses to decide who they have to concentrate on.’’

Amundson, one of the top scorers and rebounders last season, paces Northland with averages of 16.1 points and 9.3 rebounds. She’s one of five double-figure scorers, joined by freshmen starters Allyson Dahl (14.4 ppg), Tori Mekash (12 ppg) and Haley Gehrtz (11.1 ppg), with freshman Cheyenne Woods (10 ppg) adding punch off the bench.

Christian averages 5.3 points, but is one of the top playmakers nationally in DIII, averaging 8.4 assists a game.

“We love to run,’’ Amundson said. “And we have so many weapons, so many girls who can make an impact with the ability to score.’’

Northland has succeeded by recruiting heavily from its surrounding area.

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Amundson is from Thief River Falls, Dahl from Newfolden, Mekash from Greenbush, Woods from Bemidji and Gehrtz is an Ada-Borup High School grad. Likewise, the championship team last year had Durand out of Warren-Alvarado-Oslo High School, Lundon from Waubun and Lindgren from Stephen-Argyle.

Winning a national title with such a regional presence “is pretty crazy,’’ Nelson said. “But I think (prep) basketball in this area is overlooked. There is a lot of talent around here. If you recruit these kids and put them in a system where it takes advantage of their abilities, you can have something special.’’

It does take some work, however. This season, for instance, Nelson already has scrapped the offense she put in at the beginning of the year. “It’s like putting a puzzle together, putting together something that takes advantage of each girl’s strengths,’’ Nelson said. “It’s a fluid system, changing according to the strengths of the players.’’

The system has worked. The Pioneers have been national tournament qualifiers each of the past five seasons. In the first four, they were first-round losers and never placed higher than fifth. Last year, they were the No. 7 seed, but they won in the first round and never stopped winning, capturing the program’s first national title.

“At this time last year, I remember saying to somebody, ‘I don’t know if this team has it,’ ’’ Nelson said about the potential of a national title run. “But we found a way and turned it around.

“This year, I feel we have the tools, the talent, to win again. Now we just have to put it all together again.’’

Said Amundson: “We still have a lot of work to get where we want to be.’’

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Crystal Amundson

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