The Truman State University women’s basketball team, behind the strong performance of guard Hannah Belanger, has found success in the 2020-21 season.
Belanger currently leads the team in scoring and has helped lead the team to a 12-3 record. Despite the COVID-19 restrictions put on the offseason, the Bulldogs have fallen into a groove this season.
Head Coach Theo Dean said he attributes the success this season to the preparation of his players during the offseason. Dean said because of the pandemic, the usual postseason, offseason and preseason practices and meetings weren’t able to happen.
“We had huge goals that were set after our last loss,” Dean said. “Less than a week after that loss, COVID happens and everything gets shut down.”
Dean said he wasn’t able to take over this season on the first day of class with just days to prepare for essentially an entire season.
However, Dean had high praises for what his players were able to do over the summer. Dean said he couldn’t have been more impressed with the condition and shape that his players were in by Sept. 21, which was the first day the team started working with the coaches.
Dean gave the credit for this preparation to his seniors, who had taken over as the leaders of the team during the offseason.
“We had seniors leading yoga, seniors leading conditioning [and] seniors leading skills workouts at Brashear Park outside,” Dean said.
The seniors this season were the first class that Dean had recruited, and he said they have grown a lot over the past four seasons and have been a calming presence among a potentially chaotic season.
However, it wasn’t just the seniors that have stepped up, Dean said. Dean mentioned several younger players on the team such as guard Katey Klucking, Belanger and even the freshmen have adjusted well.
Dean said that Belanger is one particular player who has grown immensely since last season. Dean explained that she is one of the hardest-working players he has ever coached.
“She’s a goal setter,” Dean said. “She has a lot that she wants to accomplish … when you have a kid like that, they’re special.”
Dean also said he has even had to kick her out of the gym sometimes with how often she’s there, essentially forcing her to take a day off.
Dean mentioned that Belanger hasn’t just been incredibly successful on the court this season but has also been a 4.0 student and excels at being a student-athlete.
“Not without any difficulties, let me tell you that,” Belanger said on balancing academics and athletics.
Mondays are the team’s day off, so Belanger said she tries to get into the library and crank out as much homework as possible.
Belanger noted that the professors are also considerate and willing to work with her whenever she might need extra office hours or an extension because of a game.
Belanger said every season is difficult, but this one has been more difficult because of COVID-19 and the higher expectations she has placed on herself.
Belanger received the GLVC Freshman of the Year award after the 2019-20 season, which she said contributed to some of the offseason and early season pressure she felt.
In terms of offseason preparation, Belanger said her focus was on conditioning and agility to keep up with some of the smaller guards in the conference.
“I think this year, by working on that in the summer, I was able to get a little bit more explosive,” Belanger said. “And defensively I think I improved a lot just by working on my agility and the speed and conditioning aspect of things.”
Dean said having a coach’s mind has also proved valuable for Belanger. Dean added that she knows what it takes to win and offers suggestions on how to improve certain plays.
Belanger said her drive to work as hard as she does can be traced all the way back to her father pushing her to be great.
“Growing up my dad always knew that if you don’t work hard you’re not gonna succeed,” Belanger said. “He always pushes me to go out and get whatever I want.”
Belanger said she never feels satisfied and is always hungry for the next thing, and has the next play mentality when she is on the court.
Belanger said this mentality allows her to work towards being the best player and person that she can be, and focus on what she can control.
“Of course there’s gonna be people out there better than you, may work harder than you, but I want to be the best person, the best player that I can be, and I know that being in the gym is gonna do that for me,” Belanger said.
Belanger said she knows her potential and knows where she wants to go.
Forward and teammate Katie Jaseckas echoed Dean’s praises of Belanger, saying she is an incredibly hard worker and has been a big-time scorer for the team, both outside on the perimeter and driving to the basket.
“She knows how good she is and doesn’t want anything less,” Jaseckas said. “She wants to bring everything to the table.”
Jaseckas said having players like Belanger on the team who are willing to step up and take on bigger roles has been a big part of their success this season.
With the departure of Sloane Totta, who led the Bulldogs in scoring last season, Jaseckas said Belanger has stepped into those scoring shoes for the team.
Belanger said she has been more of the scoring guard this season, helping put both herself and her teammates into better positions.
Jaseckas also noted that it has been frustrating having the potential to be so good and not getting to be around her teammates as much. Jaseckas said they are a family, and she feels like she has 20 new sisters.
Belanger said one of the main reasons the team has been able to continue to work well together is that they all get along nicely, and several players live with each other in town.
Belanger said having that chance to see each other every so often and working out together has allowed them to keep that chemistry and team effort together. That team effort, according to Belanger, is the other reason for both the team’s and her own success.
Belanger also gave high praises to forward Ellie Weltha for this season’s success.
“I think Ellie Weltha has stepped up the most this season,” Belanger said. “…right now she is playing the best basketball she has ever played.”
Belanger said Weltha has been rebounding really well, is a scrappy player and has stepped into a much larger role this season. Having those role players around her has created several opportunities for her as well, Belanger explained.
Belanger said whichever team wins the conference this season is truly the best team if they are able to adapt to the moment, and right now Belanger believes that’s her team.
“I really think we could be undefeated right now,” Belanger said. “Minus a few of those fluke games, I think as a team we’re doing really well.”
Jaseckas said right now the players and coaches keep reminding each other of how good this team could be both in the long run and during practice drills to keep each other motivated throughout the season.
Dean said he thinks they are the best team in the conference, and as long as everybody does their job, they can accomplish the goals they set for themselves way back in March.
“We wanna do everything we set out to do last year and more this year,” Dean said. “And our players remember that every single game.”