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'Our goal is to control this area.' Millikin women's basketball hitting on local talent
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'Our goal is to control this area.' Millikin women's basketball hitting on local talent

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Millikin's head coach Olivia Lett and her coaching staff have put an emphasis on local recruiting, which includes Tri-City/Sangamon Valley's Ashlyn Sturdy and Tolono Unity's Elyce Knudsen in the Class of 2020.

DECATUR — It won't be by happenstance or coincidence next season when the Millikin women's basketball roster has three former players of the year from the area.

Sophomore Abby Ratsch was named the Large School Girls Basketball Player of the Year by the Springfield State Journal-Register in 2019. Incoming freshman Ashlyn Sturdy was the Herald & Review Macon County Girls Basketball Player of the Year in 2018 and fellow incoming freshman Elyce Knudsen is the reigning Champaign News-Gazette All-Area Girls Basketball Player of the Year. The latter who combined for more than 4,000 career points in high school.

Millikin women's basketball head coach Olivia Lett is putting a stranglehold on area talent and they have played or will play key roles for the team, in addition to other area standouts in Bloomington Central Catholic standout Bailey Coffman and Effingham grad Miranda Fox. Lett's roster is flush with area graduates with a sprinkle of out-of-area players.

“I think you can be successful at this level in recruiting smaller town kids and kids from this area," Lett said. "Our goal is to control this area, and then we go out of this area for a few kids here or there."

This, though, has been the plan since Olivia Lett took over as the women's basketball coach in 2018. Keeping area talent close to home has been a focus and it's a layered approach. First, she knows the area having starred at Pana High School before going on to win a national championship at Illinois Wesleyan University. Lett and her assistant coaches are active recruiters, particularly in attending games — the closer the prospect, the easier it is to watch from the bleachers. 

“If it wasn’t her, it was Coach Tim the assistant," Sturdy said. "There was always somebody there. Even if they couldn’t stay for the whole game, they’d be there so you know they were there watching you because they want you. That definitely made a difference."

Lett estimates either she or a member of her coaching staff were at more than 18 games combined for Sturdy and Knudsen.

There's also a familiarity about local talent that allows for a greater fan support. Lett's own national championship team at Wesleyan had local talent that led to big crowds and plenty of success. The model has proven to work and Lett firmly believes she's embarking on a path to another national championship for the Millikin women's basketball program.

"We had great crowds and we want to continue to grow that," Lett said. "When you’re little, you dream about playing in big games in front of big crowds. That’s one of our crowds is you can do that at Division III. A lot of Division I schools and Division II schools are playing in empty arenas.

"Where, if we can continue to grow our fan base in Central Illinois by recruiting kids who are well-known in this area, that’s going to help us have that support in those big games and being able to have those moments where you remember playing in front of your family, your friends. All of those people who made high school so special, now we’re going to carry that on to the college level."

Said Sturdy: “It also makes a difference crowd-wise being at Millikin because it is local. Now my whole family can come watch me play. I think that makes a big difference, too, having a big, full gym."

When Lett took over for former coach Lori Kerans, who had tremendous success in her 32-year career, including a Division III national championship, she made it a point that she didn't want to rebuild the program. Lett immediately wanted to field competitive teams. Millikin won eight games in Lett's first season and 16 last year.

Each season, though, is marked with a first. Not the first in Millikin's history, but in Lett's tenure. The first win against rival Wesleyan came on Feb. 12 in Decatur. Next year, Lett hopes, will be the first NCAA Tournament appearance. First conference tournament titles under Lett, she hopes, are on the horizon. 

"We talked about the idea of changing a program," Lett said. "(Sturdy and Knudsen), along with our current freshman class, have the ability to kind of start a program. As much as we don’t want it to be a rebuild, this is going to be the first time that we’re doing a lot of things.

“For us, it is trying to return to that. Millikin has won a national championship, but it’s kind of returning to that level. I think our kids are excited about that."

It's a recruiting pitch that resonated with Sturdy. There's something to be said about being on the ground floor.

“It makes a difference being the group, yeah, they won in the past but this would be a restart, kind of, and be able to be the first group that can start something that could lead them to success the next few years," Sturdy said. "It makes a big difference being able to be a part of her first group."

PHOTOS: 18 archive photos of the Millikin University campus

Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25


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