Strong core of players returning for Central girls

Seniors on the CHS girls’ basketball team this season include, front from left: Lexi Erpenbach and Brooke Raether; back row: Jayme Ulrich, Emilee Schmidt and Brooke Willemsen. Photo by Paul Downer

A strong core from last season’s 16-11 Central girls’ basketball team returns to the court this season, and the Raiders will look to improve on last year’s first-round playoff exit this time around.

Central head coach Gary Lembcke said there have been positive signs from the team in early practices and during the offseason.

“Our players are working hard. We had a good summer with the commitment that the kids made, and we did very well in the fall league, so we’re hoping that transfers over to the season,” Lembcke said.

Three starters return to the lineup this season, and all have extensive varsity experience. Senior guard Lexi Erpenbach is entering her fourth year, and is a two-time all-conference player. Senior forward Brooke Willemsen was another an all-conference performer last season and led the team in rebounds (253). She was also third in scoring (277 points) and second in steals (72).

Sophomore guard Kaylie Brazil is the third returning starter. She was second on the team in scoring last season with 281 points, and led the team in assists (79) and steals (112).

When considering the team’s strengths going into this season, Lembcke said the starting point is those three players.

“First off you have to look at Brooke, Lexi and Kaylie. With those three, I think our perimeter play will be our strength,” he said. “I do think our post play can come on strong for us too because we’ve got more height in the middle than we’ve had the past few years. We hope that transfers into being a better rebounding team. That’s kind of a weakness we’ve had the past couple of years.”

Last season’s squad included a pair of young post players who gained valuable varsity experience and will bring the height Lembcke mentioned to the paint this winter in juniors Nicole Miller and Sami Jo Brinkmann. Those two, along with Willemsen, should make the Raiders tougher on the boards this year.

“Brooke Willemsen played a lot inside the past few years, and now we’ve got her playing kind of on the perimeter. She’s been our leading rebounder the past two years. With those three we should be able to really compete on the board and make it a strength,” said Lembcke.

In addition to the players mentioned above, three seniors will help to lead the squad this season. Forward Brooke Raether, guard Jayme Ulrich and center Emilee Schmidt help bring experience to the roster, and Lembcke called them “great kids and great leaders.”

As for challenges this year, Lembcke said the team is still working to improve on the defensive side.

“Right now we have to become a better defensive team. We need to get in the passing lanes, give backside help, get into the right positions and those kinds of things. If we do that, that will transfer into more wins,” he said.

Looking around the conference, Lembcke said Jordan will be a tough team to beat due to the return of Madison Dean (runner-up in the conference MVP voting last season). Mayer Lutheran will also provide a challenge due to the Crusaders’ physical, defensive-minded style. In the playoffs, the Raiders will eventually have to face defending state champion Providence Academy in the section if they want to go on an extended run.

Lembcke said his main objective for the season doesn’t necessarily involve wins and losses, but rather a sustained improvement heading into the postseason.

“Obviously you want to do well in the conference, hopefully win it, and go from there. But my goal is that we keep improving throughout the year, and then team goals and individual goals will take care of themselves,” he said.

The Raiders opened their season this past Tuesday, Nov. 27 at Mound. Their first home game is Thursday, Nov. 29 against ACGC at 7:30 p.m.

A highlight of the early season comes on Saturday, Dec. 1 when all the Central high school basketball teams face Legacy Christian Academy at the Target Center. The varsity girls will play at 5:45 p.m., and the varsity boys will play at 7:30 p.m.