Mount Union women's team enjoys season to remember

By David Carducci Record-Courier staff writer Published:

Join the Mount Union College women's basketball team and see the world.

Two years ago, the Purple Raiders traveled to Wisconsin for the Division III Final Four.

This year, they returned to the NCAA Tournament, hosting a first-round game before visiting Minnesota last weekend for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight.

Now, the Purple Raider caravan is on its way again.

The plane carrying the Mount Union women left this morning at dawn for Gorham, Maine, for the team's second Final Four appearance in the last three years.

Mount Union will face host Southern Maine at 8 p.m. Friday for the right to play either Rowan of New Jersey or Washington University of Missouri (who play at 5 p.m.)in Saturday's title game.

"It is exciting for everyone," said Mount Union head coach Deanne Knoblauch, a former All-Mid-American Conference guard at Bowling Green. "It is really neat for the team. Last week, when we went to Minnesota, several players hadn't even flown in a plane before. They got to see Minneapolis and the Chicago airport. This trip, we'll stop in Washington on the way back."

In between the sight seeing, the Purple Raiders have played some remarkable basketball to stay alive in the tournament.

After a first-round bye, superstar point guard Suzie Venet hit a layup with two seconds left in the second-round game with Calvin (Mich.) to lift the Purple Raiders to a 57-56 victory in their only home game of the postseason.

"Suzie is having a great year," Knoblauch said of the Ohio Athletic Conference player of the year, who is averaging 18.3 points, 9.7 assists and 6.6 rebounds per game. "She is so consistent. It's to the point where we expect her to have a great game every night."

A week later in the Sweet 16, Venet led the Raiders as they came back from 17 points down in the first half against St. Benedict of Minnesota to win 79-74.

Against host St. Thomas of Minnesota, the Raiders again survived a scare with a 67-63 win to qualify for this weekend's Final Four.

"It was tough for us on the road, but the similarities this year were striking to the (1995-96) tournament," said Knoblauch. "We had to do it the hard way back then too. We were on the road twice, and both times had to beat the home team in front of a huge crowd. I am just so proud of this team, because doing that is no small feat."

To advance to the championship game, Mount Union will have the same daunting task of knocking off a team playing in front of its home fans when they play Southern Maine Friday night.

"Ithink that is actually more fun," said Amber Rykaceski, a xxxxx substitute from Rootstown. "It's a lot more exciting to upset a team at their home in front of a really big crowd ... It might have been nice to play at home in front of our own fans (in the Final Four), but I think a lot of the time the players feel a lot of pressure at home. When we are on the road, the pressure is all on the other team."

Rykaceski is one of two Purple Raiders who played their high school basketball in Portage County.

Ravenna's Neilly Stouffer has been a valuable sixth man for Mount Union, coming off the bench to spark the team with her quickness in the post.

"Neilly is playing so well for us," said Knoblauch. "She has to be the best passing post player I've ever coached. And her defensive help is so great. She is only 5-foot-9, but she is so smart and such a great passer."

Stouffer will have her hands full when she is in the game with Southern Maine boasting a front line that includes a 6-0 all-American in Joanna Brown and a talented 6-1 center in Tracey Libby.

But according to Stouffer, she is up to the task of helping to shut down Brown and Libby.

"I think height is overrated," she said. "If you work hard, you can make up for the difference in height. I'll have to use my quickness and basically just work hard on defense and hustle."

Stouffer was one of five players who played on the Purple Raiders' last Final Four team, including Venet, Danielle Jones (a second team All-OAC forward), Meggan Few and Katie Miller.

That team finished second in the nation, losing to Final Four host Wisconsin-Oshkosh 66-50 in the championship game.

"I think we are a much better team than that team was," said Stouffer. "We play together more as a team. We are all just like best friends, and I think that helps ... If we play together as a team, I don't think there is anyone who can beat us."

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