Sioux City, IA — The goal of winning a National Championship for the women’s basketball team fell one game short, as Saint Xavier (34-3) lost to reigning title holder Marian University (35-3), 66-52. The Cougars head home to Chicago from Sioux City, Iowa as this year’s NAIA National Runner-Up.
After defeating Concordia University in the Fabulous Four, hall of fame head coach Bob Hallberg and his group were nationally recognized as one of the two best teams in the country. Major media outlets like Comcast SportsNet and the Chicago Tribune provided coverage of the women’s title run. Even Illinois’ Senator Dick Durbin hopped on the Cougars’ bandwagon by showcasing his support via Twitter.
— Senator Dick Durbin (@SenatorDurbin) March 14, 2017
Prior to the Championship, Saint Xavier fought valiantly in its semifinal matchup against Concordia University. Down 17 points after one quarter, as well as down eight at the half, the Cougars, led by a combined 50 points from Kara Krolicki and Maddie Welter, emphatically punched their ticket to the title game by defeating Concordia, 91-83.
Saint Xavier entered the Championship riding a 16-game winning streak and averaged 89 points per game in four NAIA tournament contests. Four Cougar starters scored in double digits, but their efforts in the title bout were not enough to outlast Marian.
“We had a bad shooting day and that doesn’t happen too often,” coach Hallberg said, after his team shot 37 percent from the field and 26 percent from three. “You can’t have a bad game out here. We had a bad game after we won four and now we’re on our way back in second place.”
Returning home as the second-best team in the country is not a reason for the women to hang their heads. Finishing the season with 34 wins, four All-CCAC team members, the CCAC Freshman of the Year, the CCAC Player of the Year and a lifetime of memories, the 2016-17 Saint Xavier Cougars will go down as the program’s best team through its 17-year existence.
Before riding out of Iowa, the Cougars made sure to leave their mark on the NAIA National Tournament record books for individual performances. Junior center Brittany Collins, who broke Saint Xavier’s single-season blocks record, set a tournament record by gathering 68 rebounds in five games. She was recognized as an All-Tournament First Team member.
Senior Mikayla Leyden characteristically broke the NAIA tournament assists record with 44. Leyden leaves Saint Xavier as the Cougars’ career assists leader with 526.
Topping Leyden and Collins’ Nationals performance was Kara Krolicki. The junior scoring aficionado achieved a spot on the NAIA All-Tournament First Team after averaging 19 points per tournament contest. Krolicki was also named NAIA Player of the Year as the country’s second leading scorer this season.
For the seniors, the feeling is bittersweet. Meaghan McMahon, Revi McMahon, Sarah Vozel, Sami Pawlak and the aforementioned Mikayla Leyden will be moving on to the next chapter in their respective lives. Next year, it will be up to Collins, Krolicki and returning starters Chanel Fanter and Maddie Welter to create a new ending in Iowa.
Looking ahead to next season, Saint Xavier will return four starters. However, one of the more difficult changes to this roster relates to what coach Hallberg considers the most valuable player he’s ever coached.
“Mikayla is one person, but she does so much,” Hallberg said about the graduating Leyden. “She does everything well. She rebounds almost like a big forward. She triggers the fast break off the rebound and can go inside or outside and hit a three. Not only that, but she plays good defense. She’s in very good shape and she runs the floor. Mikayla is going to be extremely tough to replace because she is so versatile. You can count on her for so many different aspects and she’s almost unstoppable going to the basket.”
With over 1,000 career wins, coach Hallberg has been in this position before and will look to replace the talent he is losing with players in the upcoming recruiting class.
“I pride myself on the fact that I don’t like being down,” Hallberg stated. “That’s not a lot of fun.”
The book is officially closed on the 2016-17 Saint Xavier Cougars and the women’s basketball team was among the two teams who played in the last game of the year. With a 34-3 overall record and a National Runner-Up label, the Cougars will look back on this season as an overwhelming success.
Senior Sports Editor