BY: RICHARD SPEAS, DIRECTOR OF STUDENT LIFE & ATHLETICS
While the first flakes of snow have not caressed the Thief River Falls landscape to date, the NCTC winter sports season has arrived. The brightest beam on the horizon with the ushering in of the sport season is the women’s basketball team’s preseason ranking by the NJCAA (National Junior College Athletic Association). The Pioneers, led by head coach Shannon Nelson, are coming off a national championship runner-up in the NJCAA Division III women’s basketball finals last season. The finish has vaulted the perennial power to the number one ranking in the nation. Since 2010, the Pioneers are 144-33 (.814) under Nelson at the helm. The Pioneers finished 28-3 last season, and 14-0 in conference play.
Beth Tvedt returns as the assistant coach for the Pioneers.
The Pioneers return two starters from last year’s runner up team. Back are All-American ShaRon Miller (Blaine, MN), a 6’ post player, and guard Myesha Caldwell (Moundsview, MN). Miller, who led the nation in field goal percentage (61%), also led the Pioneers in scoring average per game, averaging 17.3 points per contest, while pulling down 8.8 caroms per game. Also back is Emily Hestekind (Newfolden, MN) who was injured early in the season, and missed the rest of the campaign.
Former Pioneers, Allison Dahl (Newfolden, MN) is now playing at Bemidji State University (NCAA Division II) while Tori Mekash (Greenbush, MN) is continuing her collegiate career at Northern State University.
The NCTC women’s basketball team will feature the tallest line-up during Nelson’s tenure as coach, with newcomers Alexia Olson (Red Lake Falls, MN), a 6’2” post player who transferred in from Mayville State University (NAIA, Division II) in Mayville, North Dakota, and freshman Megan Swedberg (Ogema, MN), a 6’1” post player.
The NCTC men’s basketball team looks to fashion a balanced squad comprised of 14 newcomers along with returners Jake Joppru (Thief River Falls, MN) and Ed Brown (Columbia, SC). Nikunen will look for a banner season from Joppru, a 6’1” shooting guard. Joppru led the team in scoring with a 15.2 points per game, while shooting 39% from the three point arc.
The Pioneers (11-18, 6-8) look to improve on last year’s fifth place finish in conference play. After a slow start in conference play last season, the NCTC men played their best basketball down the stretch, going 5-2 in the final seven regular season conference games.
Nikunen, a twenty-six year veteran at NCTC, looks for the previous year’s co-champs, Central Lakes and Vermilion to be the league favorites in the Northern Division. “We will look to be balanced,” noted Nikunen, “We have depth, and need to play as a team to be successful. The league is young overall.” Nikunen will have a new assistant in Christian Erickson, who comes to Northland after coaching stops at Hawley High School (MN) and Moorhead High School (MN).
Scott DCamp returns as the head coach of the Pioneers wrestling team for his fourth year and will be assisted by returning coach Sam Twistol, a former wrestler for Lincoln High School and NCTC. Fifteen-year Lincoln High assistant coach Mark Davis has also joined the Pioneers staff.
Leading the returning wrestlers is Mitch Zachman (Albertville, MN) who was a national qualifier last year at 165. Also returning for the Pioneers are: Alex Giese (Kenmare, ND) and Tannner Schreifels (Kimball, MN), both competing at the 157 pound weight class, and 197 pounder, Tyshaun Brown (Thief River Falls, MN). Also returning after a year’s absence from the mat is 285 pounder Brandon Edner (Moorhead, MN) who wrestled for DCamp during the 2014-2015 campaign. The roster also includes three transfers, along with eight new freshmen.
The national qualifying format has been changed, with the Iowa colleges nationally elite programs headed to a separate district. The Pioneers will host the NJCAA North District on February 12th, which serves as the national qualifying meet for the MCAC schools. The national tournament returns to Council Bluffs, Iowa again this year in late February.