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A ‘Kneed’ to Improve Banged-Up Big Green Ready for ‘Adventure’

Hanover — The Dartmouth College women’s basketball team is inexperienced, injured and, according to a preseason poll of Ivy League sports information staffers and media, unimpressive. That group recently picked the Big Green to finish seventh in the Ancient Eight for a third consecutive season.

So why is coach Chris Wielgus smiling?

“It’s a bit of an adventure, but I do think we’re ahead of where we were at this time last year,’’ said the 30th-year bench boss, whose 14-player squad includes seven freshmen and four sophomores, one of whom was injured all of last season. “They’re keeping me young and enthusiastic and excited about the prospect of who they could become.’’

Dartmouth (1-0), which beat Bryant last weekend and hosts Brigham Young tonight in its home opener, is the second-youngest team among 336 NCAA Division I squads. Only San Jose State is more callow, the Spartans’ nine-woman roster featuring six freshmen and one returnee.

The future is definitely now for the Big Green, which has only one senior for a second consecutive season and two juniors. The former is second team All-Ivy guard Faziah Steen, who was third in Ivy scoring last season at 15.4 points per game, but who has taken a pounding on her knees over the years and didn’t play at Bryant. The latter are point guard Nicola Zimmer, another knee injury survivor who averaged 6 points, 3.5 assists and 3.6 turnovers, and shooting guard Eve Zellinger, who started twice and averaged 2.8 points and 2.4 turnovers.

After that? There’s 6-foot-2, sophomore center Tia Dawson, who started in 25 games as a freshman, averaging 7.4 points, 7 rebounds and 2.6 turnovers. She led the Ivies in blocked shots at 1.7 per game. Classmate and forward Milica Toskovic, also 6-2, averaged 7.5 points and 3.6 turnovers.

Dawson “is so much stronger, and she still has great hands,’’ Wielgus said. “But she has to learn to let it go if she misses a shot or something else goes wrong.’’

Registering a double-double at Bryant was sophomore Abbey Schmitt, a 6-foot forward who sat out all of last year because of a knee injury. The Big Green’s leading scorer that day was sophomore guard Kamala Thompson, who dropped in a career-high 17 points after averaging just 4.1 per game last winter.

Another sophomore is 6-2 swing player Milica Toskovic, who started 19 games last season and averaged 7.5 points and 4.3 rebounds.

Among the freshmen, the most intriguing might be 5-6 point guard Kaitana Martinez, an Idaho product who is coming off her second knee surgery in two years and isn’t expected back until next month. Early observations based on demeanor and intensity, however, suggest KT, as she’s more familiarly known, could still be a factor this winter.

“We’re dying to see her play,’’ Wielgus said. “She runs through the drills, but she can’t cut hard yet, even though she’s way ahead of the (recovery) curve.’’

Daisy Jordan, a 6-foot post player from Worcester, Mass., and New Hampshire’s Tilton School, played 19 minutes and scored 10 points in the opener, and Wielgus said she gives Dartmouth a stocky, physical presence. Classmate and guard Jordyn Turner is a Pennsylvanian who also participated in cross country, field hockey and lacrosse in high school and forward Kasey Crockett, who hails from the same Detroit prep school as Steen, brings speed and athleticism but is coming off (what else?) a knee injury.

“This is our biggest freshman class ever,’’ Wielgus said. “But I feel very good about their commitment and love of the game. What’s hard for me, and I should be more understanding about this, is that they’re struggling and they’re overwhelmed.’’

Dartmouth has struggled the past few years. But before the Big Green became an Ivy cellar dweller, it captured four league titles between 2005 and 2009. The bottom began to fall out a year later, when the Big Green finished fifth, its worst standing since the 1992-93 campaign. Then came the last two winters, the program’s worst consecutive seasons since Ivy play began in 1976.

After winning 18 games during the 2008-09 season, Dartmouth has only won a combined 13 the last two campaigns. The Big Green tasted victory only twice at home last winter and Leede Arena, once a noisy bandbox during women’s games, was often two-thirds empty. Seven players have left the program before graduation during the last four years, but Steen says such attrition shouldn’t be a future concern.

“There are so many factors that go into that, so who really knows why that’s been a problem?’’ she said. “Only that person. But this group we have now, they seem pretty resilient and I don’t think that’s going to be an issue anymore.’’

If the losing continues apace this season, it could be a problem for Wielgus. But it’s not like the coach doesn’t know that already.

“If someone comes to me and says `Chris, you’ve got to win,’ I’m like, ‘No kidding,’ ’’ the coach said. “Nobody puts more pressure on me than I put on myself.

“I think everyone else is more paranoid than I am. I hear that the sky is falling and we’re never going to pull ourselves out of this, but I’m just going to do my job. I’m not worried about it.’’

Perhaps that’s why she’s smiling.

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-727-3227.