|The two-time West Region Player of the Year is fittingly ending her St. Thomas career at the Final Four.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com
By Nathan Ford
It took a semester for Kaitlin Langer to realize Winona State wasn't the right fit.
"And we're like, OK, open arms," St. Thomas coach Ruth Sinn recalls.
Three and a half years later, Langer is a two-time West Region Player of the Year leading the unbeaten Tommies to the Final Four.
"It's obviously been one of the most rewarding decisions I've ever made," the senior forward said.
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Coming out of Hill-Murray High School in Stillwater, Minn., Langer's decision was basically between Winona State and St. Thomas. She chose the scholarship Division II route.
After playing in five games, there was no sense in waiting to make a change.
"Sometimes just being in the Division II atmosphere is a lot different," Langer said. "Being on scholarship, you have a lot of different responsibilities. I think some of that experience, I just was not happy with it. I wanted to move closer to home also, because I had kind of some family stuff going on at the time."
At a program like St. Thomas that had just been to the Final Four two years earlier, even a D-II transfer wasn't going to step in and make an impact right away.
Langer spent time with the JV team to get acclimated and played in 7.2 minutes per game at the varsity level. Her sophomore year was similar: 3.6 points in 8.2 minutes as a third-string center behind All-American Maggie Weiers.
The next season the starting spot opened up. Langer ran with it.
Her numbers exploded: 17.9 points, 9.1 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. The accolades followed: Conference player of the year. Region player of the year.
First team All-American.
"If you're here at practice every day, it's not a huge jump," Sinn said. "What people don't understand is, every day at practice she was going against All-American Maggie Weiers. She was being challenged every day."
"That was something that was really key to my improvement," Langer said. "It was still surprising to become such a big contributor really quickly, but I think that's just a tribute to the program and how we develop people no matter how many minutes they play a game. That's just something that I think really helped me grow."
|Langer provides leadership in addition to filling up the stat sheet for the unbeaten Tommies.
Photo by Mike Ekern, University of St. Thomas
The Tommies graduated eight seniors, including four starters, prior to last season. That inexperience showed at times, most notably in a Sweet 16 loss to Wartburg at home.
What had been a successful season (26-4 overall, MIAC championship), didn't end with the team reaching its full potential.
This year, that changed. The team lost only two seniors, including one starter, and got another contributor – Gabby Zehrer – back from injury. The Tommies quickly went to work.
"Part of us felt like we didn't realize how close we were (last year) until after," said Langer, who is averaging 19.3 points on 54.8 percent shooting and 79.9 percent free-throw shooting, plus 8.5 rebounds. "We did realize kind of the opportunity that was lost by us not getting the opportunity to host the Elite Eight and losing in the Sweet 16. I think this year we were extra motivated."
Another MIAC championship followed, coupled with an undefeated regular season that matched the 2014-15 team. Unlike that team, UST broke through to the Final Four, the sixth appearance in program history and second under Sinn (2012).
A big reason has been defense.
The Tommies trailed 51-45 with nine minutes remaining in Friday's Sweet 16, but held Marymount to four points the rest of the way for a 62-55 win. Saturday, Whitman didn't make a single 3-pointer (0-15) and shot just 27.4 percent as St. Thomas cut down the nets with a 65-48 victory.
"Last year we were very young and, to be honest, we weren't a very good defensive team," Sinn said. "That was one of the areas that we knew we needed to improve and develop and we needed to get better at. It's been a focus of ours."
Naturally, as the team's core got older, it improved defensively.
Along with Langer, seniors Zehrer and Paige Gernes and junior Lauren Fischer are in the starting lineup. They've helped bring along players like sophomores Lucia Renikoff and Hannah Spaulding, the team's fourth and fifth-leading scorers.
"I think they just understood it," Sinn said of handling the pressure of a deep tournament run. "Last year I think the moment was too big for us. We were young, and being in the Sweet 16 was something that was kind of overwhelming and wasn't something that we really understood."
There are some nerves now, to be certain. After all, No. 4 Tufts (29-2), UST's opponent, is not only unfamiliar, but ranks second nationally in scoring defense (42.5) and ninth in field-goal percentage defense (31.5).
Ultimately though, the prevailing mindset is one of enthusiasm. Sinn's first Final Four team brought St. Thomas back to national prominence. This group is continuing that legacy, championship or not.
"If I were to ask you, you get to play in the Final Four, what would you say? 'Yes!' You wouldn't say, 'Oh no...' So I would tell the girls, let's remember that," Sinn said. "When we get to that moment, let's just say, 'This is great.' Let's go out and embrace it."
It's another reason why Langer came to a program like St. Thomas, why she worked for two years behind another All-American, why the Tommies haven't lost since the disappointment of last season's ending.
"That's just so rewarding for us," Langer said. "We're so excited to have this opportunity."