|Now a senior, Caitlin Knueppel is feeling less pressure and having more fun on the court with her teammates.
Photo by Jeff Wilson
By Adam Turer
There’s no better way to erase the memory of a frustrating and disappointing season than to get in the gym all summer, then make some history.
Wisconsin Lutheran had its streak of six straight NCAA tournament appearances snapped last year. How did the Warriors bounce back? By winning 17 straight games and earning the first Top 25 ranking in program history.
How have they done it? By buying into a team concept, improving their defense, and relying on another in a long line of Knueppels to lead a Warriors team on the court.
After missing out on the NCAA tournament for the first time in her career, Caitlin Knueppel knew that her team had to recalibrate in the offseason. So did her senior classmate Coreana Carson. Now, the Warriors are on pace to again play into March.
“We all knew we had to work during the offseason. We all had the team goal to come back and win the conference tournament,” said Knueppel. “We also knew that individually we had to do different things to help the team.”
The surname Knueppel and Wisconsin Lutheran basketball are nearly synonymous. Caitlin’s grandfather, Paul, is a Wisconsin Lutheran Hall of Famer. He was the men’s basketball coach and athletic director and helped guide the athletic department into Division III. The Warriors women now host the Paul F. Knueppel Classic to tip off each season.
Caitlin’s father and two of her uncles played at Wisconsin Lutheran. Her cousin, Mack, is a sophomore on the men’s team. Her father, Klay, is her head coach and has led the women’s program to seven 20-win seasons. One more win this year will give him an eighth.
Klay played for Paul in both high school and then in college. His older daughter, Kaila, played for the Warriors but was not counted on to contribute many minutes. Caitlin on the other hand is a three-year starter.
“It’s one of those things where I’m really hard on her to do everything right. I put a lot of pressure on her,” said Klay. “She’s done a really good job this year of taking care of the ball and working with her teammates.
“It’s been a great experience for me. It’s going to tough going down the stretch with her here. She’s my last daughter to play for me. Her sister rode the bench here. I think that motivated Caitlin that she didn’t want to sit on the bench for her father. The biggest thing was she wanted to play for me and we had a really successful program. We have a great group of kids that play here. She grew up going to the NCAA tournaments and watching my teams play in them. She wanted to be a part of that.”
After contributing to conference championships and NCAA tournament berths her first two years, Caitlin was reaching her goals. Then, last season ended in disappointment. Leading scorer Jen Dowden got hurt late in the year, and the Warriors stumbled to a 2-4 finish without her. That motivated Knueppel to work harder than ever this past offseason. She relied on her grandfather to help her with her defense, and her uncle Kon to help her offensively. Caitlin also adjusted her attitude.
“I think I felt more pressure the first three years. Now i’m trying to have more fun with it, which relieves that pressure,” she said. “Having Coreana helps me. My teammates have been really helpful to relieve that pressure this year.”
The seniors realize that they have just a dozen or so practices left in their careers. While Knueppel realized at a young age that she would most likely follow in the footsteps of so many of her relatives and suit up for the Warriors, Carson never intended to play college basketball. It wasn’t until her high school coach put her in touch with his friend Klay Knueppel that Carson considered playing at the next level. It’s worked out pretty well for her.
“I was just happy to have the opportunity to play,” said Carson. “When I found out about the winning tradition here, that was a bonus.”
Carson has made the most of her opportunity, averaging over 10 points and four rebounds and nearly four assists per game this season. Knueppel pours in 15.7 points per game, second only to a now-healthy Dowden, who averages 16.4.
|Carson helps take pressure off of Knueppel while providing additional senior leadership.
Photo by Jeff Wilson
“I feel like we’re more of a team this year. Last year we weren’t as strong as a functional team unit,” said Carson. “We came together early this year to make sure we had each other’s goals in mind. To have Jen healthy and strong, that gives us confidence to play together. That gives us a big boost.”
Carson understands that her fellow senior leader is under a level of pressure that the rest of the team can’t quite understand. The Knueppel name carries a weight that Caitlin tries to uphold. Fortunately, she doesn’t have to carry it on her own.
“I just try to be there for her. I know she feels the pressure a lot,” said Carson. “I try to take that off of her in any way I can.”
Caitlin’s coach and father appreciates the work that she has put in to better herself and her team.
“From where she was in high school to where she is now, I knew she could be a good player, but just the amount of time she put in to her game, in the gym three hours a day, five days a week, it’s paying off now,” said Klay. “Right now, she’s really focused on helping the team.”
There is no doubt that the 2016-17 season impacted this year’s history-making team.
“I think for the coaches it was a wake-up call as well. We’ve been in the tournament so much,” said Klay. “They were really unhappy with how the season ended. I think there was a refocus on the work it takes to get there.”
That work has paid off so far, as the Warriors earned the first Top 25 ranking in the program’s relatively young history. The recognition was a culmination of the program’s success over the last two decades.
“I think what’s great about it is for how young our school is, the biggest challenge for me is being at a school that’s not been around very long. Most of those guys in the Top 25 have been around for 100 years,” said Klay. “For us to be in that, it’s great. I think of the hard work that the teams put in before us. It’s too bad we got knocked off on Tuesday. It’s been a great thing for our program and our school. I think it’s the kids that played for us before and the success they had, I think that has brought us some national recognition.”
The Top 25 ranking gave the players additional perspective on how far the program has come. It also reminded them of the key to past Warriors successes.
“It shows what a great basketball team we are not just this year, but in past years. And it shows what a great coach we have in Coach Knueppel and how he pushes us. We worked hard every day to get there and we want to get back there,” said Carson. “Without the team, you’re nothing. You can’t do anything on your own. The ones that came before us and had success, they played together as a team.”