For the first time in program history, the Bellevue women's basketball team will be taking the 10-hour drive up to Dickinson for a North Star Athletic Association matchup this evening at Scott Gymnasium. Tip-off is scheduled for 5:30 p.m.
It will be one of many firsts for the Bruins this year, who just a couple of months ago had never played a sanctioned NAIA game.
Bellevue (Neb.) University announced in early 2015 its intention and acceptance into the NSAA for the start of the 2015-16 season, and a year later, a women's basketball team followed, becoming the ninth program in the conference.
But the Bruins, at 7-4 through their first 11 games in their very short history, are not playing at all like a new team.
The roster, which is almost entirely comprised of junior college transfers, already has a win over an opponent in Haskell (Kan.) ranked in the preseason top 25, plus a 1-0 start in conference play after beating Viterbo in its NSAA opener, 62-57.
The Bruins have nine juniors, one senior and one freshman. Their starting lineup, at least class-wise, is almost comparable to Dickinson State's in terms of upperclassmen.
Blue Hawks head coach Mark Graupe has faced teams without any semblance of history before, but this one is a little bit different.
"People say, 'Oh, it's a new program.' You know what, though? They're not new. They recruited all junior college players, so they're very experienced. It's not, like, 'Oh, he's got all freshman out of high school.' Nope, he went the juco route," Graupe said, "and they've done something that we haven't done. They beat a top 25 team and we haven't. They've got a better record than we do. They're above us in the conference, they're 1-0 in the conference."
When Graupe took over as head coach four years ago, the Blue Hawks, were, for a brief time, still in the Frontier Conference.
He recalled playing teams back then similarly early in their program histories.
Going off only recent film without any sort of blueprint can be a tough challenge, Graupe said, but ultimately, it's just like preparing for any other opponent.
"We'll watch film (Thursday), that'll help. Sometimes you can talk all you want, but you also need to see the picture part," Graupe said. "They'll get to see what we're talking about, and we'll prepare for some basic things they do defensively. Stuff like that. But we'll prepare the same way."
The Blue Hawks entered last weekend's two-game conference weekend with a realistic expectation.
Against Jamestown, the 10th-ranked team in the NAIA's Division II and also the No. 1 team standing between them a conference championship, Graupe expected the Jimmies to defend their home court.
They did just that, beating DSU by 10. The real intrigue came a day later in Mayville, when the Blue Hawks needed eight overtime points from junior Paitton Herbst to salvage the split.
"That one was big. I think if we would have went 0 for 2 on the road, it would have really affected us. Since we pulled away with that win at Mayville it was a big confidence booster," Herbst said. "We know we can play better against them, for some reason we always worse against Mayville. But we needed that one."
Still, eight games into this season, the Blue Hawks (4-3) have not found the same groove they had last year en route to one of their best seasons in program history.
"I don't think we've hit our peak yet, definitely not," Herbst said. "I think we're still kind of making our way to that, definitely."
First, by a lot
Senior Megan Klein grabbed 32 more rebounds over the course of the two games last weekend, and is now averaging an NAIA Division II best 17.17 boards a game. The second-place player is averaging almost five less a game.
She is narrowly being edged by NAIA DIvision I's Linet Juma, of Texas College, who is averaging 17.20 per game. Against Rocky Mountain College earlier in the year, Klein grabbed 25 boards, a number that, according to the record books - which Graupe admitted are a bit hazy - tied the all-time DSU record, which was initially set in 1977.
According to Graupe, Klein's stellar rebounding numbers all started her sophomore year in a January game against Mayville. She grabbed 15 in that contest and hasn't slowed since.
"The first half the year of her sophomore year, she was fighting for playing time. She wasn't starting all the time. Then all of a sudden something clicked," Graupe said. "She just had the game of her life and just took pride in rebounding. Ever since then, it's just been her mindset. It's not about your jumping ability, it's about an attitude, and she just developed that attitude that she's going to do that every game."