Four years ago, Maggie McCloskey-Bax began her tenure as North Central head women’s basketball coach alongside a trio of talented freshmen, her first recruiting class, who would come to define the program. Ixchel Leeuwenburgh, Alison Pearson and Mitrese Smith have played a combined 247 games for the Cardinals, and while Pearson will return for a fifth season, Leeuwenburgh and Smith’s careers have concluded.
“I think they’ve done such a good job being vocal leaders, being an inspiration to the younger group,” said McCloskey-Bax of the seniors. “They just realized how important it was to be a team and fight for each other, and I think they’ve carried that on to the rest of the players.”
“I think I’m going to remember, obviously, the women on the team the most just because they have taught me so many things not just through basketball, but through being a mentor and helping them get through not just academic or physical attributes but through life,” said Smith.
“I think we’ve grown a lot, especially me, Mitrese and Aly and Coach Bax,” reflected Leeuwenburgh. “We’ve definitely grown to see each other more as people on the court. Yes, we’re teammates and coaches but we worked a lot more together to create a good environment for everyone.”
They’ve collectively defined a culture and identity for Cardinals’ women’s basketball based on hard work, reliance and determination that is now the team’s hallmark, an indelible legacy this group leaves behind.
“I think we are scrappy,” said Leeuwenburgh with a smirk. “I think we are the underdogs that just really like to perform when we’re challenged. I’ve always thought that this team had a lot of heart. We’re still putting the pieces together but when we are challenged it felt like we were ready for the challenge.”
“When you play us, you know that we’re gonna play you hard, and a few coaches came up to me after games and said ‘it’s a fight every time we play you guys’,” said McClockey-Bax. “And that’s a testament to the players and what we want to do as a program.”
That ethos was on display throughout the season. The three seniors were at the forefront as expected, with Pearson leading the team in scoring and assists and Leeuwenburgh leading in rebounding. Alongside the established faces, the breakout star of the year was sophomore guard Elle Sutter, who practically walked off the soccer field from the CCIW Tournament championship game and onto the basketball court to start the season.
“I wasn’t expecting to play right away,” Sutter said. “I showed up to practice the day after the [CCIW women’s soccer tournament championship] game and coach said I wasn’t going to be dressing, then the next day she told me I could dress but ‘just be warming up,’ and then as I was sitting on the bench she was like, ‘yeah we might need you to go in’ and then I was in the game.”
“She’s basically a freshman,” said McCloskey-Bax. “This is her first full college season of either sport. So we knew how special she could be we just didn’t know how quickly it would happen.”
Sutter took a few weeks to get fully up to speed with basketball season after a first-team all conference soccer season, but once she did she was a vital part of the team on both offense and defense. She led the team in blocks and steals while being the second-leading scorer. Her well-rounded campaign earned her a spot on the CCIW All-Conference First Team for a second sport this year, the first ever Cardinal to earn the honor for soccer and basketball back-to-back.
“I think as the season went on I got more comfortable with the ball in my hands,” said Sutter. “My awareness definitely got better because it’s different from the soccer field where I’ve got a ton of space in front of me.”
Sutter will be one the players, along with juniors Natalie Stavropolous and the Kowalczyk twins Jessica and Stephanie, who must help fill the leadership and experience gap that Leeuwenburgh and Smith will leave behind. But the departing seniors hope they’ve had an impact that will benefit the squad after they’re gone.
“You can always be a better teammate,” said Leeuwenburgh. “I think that’s one thing that I hope I shared with my teammates and that I hope to leave in the program because I think win-loss record, whatever happens, I’m going to look back at the four years and think I made some really great friends, some really great memories.”
“I personally think of myself as just helping out other people, giving them little pointers here and there,” said Smith. “And I just wanted them to be able to able to look up to me and possibly learn some new things from me so that maybe they can teach the underclassmen when they become upperclassmen.”
“Mitrese is a force on this campus so I think North Central is gonna miss her as much as possible,” said McCloskey-Bax of Smith. “I think she’s done so many good things within this campus. Ixchel is just a really special person that I don’t know how we replace that energy and effort but I think she’s rubbed off on all the other players and they realize how important it is to come in every day and just work hard with a love for the game and a love for teammates.”
“Mitrese and Ixchel are such big leaders both on and off the court and they’re very vocal,” said Sutter of the departing seniors. “So I think all of us having to step up, communicate, be supportive of one another will be huge.”
Ultimately, the team fell in the first round of the CCIW tournament to the Carroll University Pioneers. Though the ending wasn’t what they would have liked, the loss provided a final opportunity for the players’ whose careers had just ended to impart wisdom gained through their extensive experience to those with many games left to play.
“It ends a lot quicker than you think,” Leeuwenburgh said. “You never want to walk off like you didn’t put your whole heart into it, and don’t be embarrassed to try really hard.”
“I told them in the locker room after the last game they need to realize that each and every single one of them matters on this team, every single thing you do is affecting the team and and so you have to be conscious of that,” said Smith. “And just to continue to want to play and keep fighting and understanding what’s your ‘why.’”