Hammond Morton grad reflects on the humble beginnings and current successes of IU Northwest women’s basketball

IUN Lady RedHawksIU Northwest, 3-3-2011 – When the Lady RedHawks travel back to Sioux City, Iowa next week for their second consecutive NAIA D-II National Tournament appearance, it will mark the last road trip for the last remaining member of head coach Ryan Shelton’s first team.

That squad had only five players and endured a winless season in 2007-08. But Hammond Morton grad Erica Baran and her four teammates refused to hang up their jerseys.

IUN RedHawks Erica Baran“It was a frustrating first season, to say the least,” Baran recalled. “I don’t think any of us wanted to give up, though. We could have easily said, ‘Let’s not finish the rest of the season and have one less loss on our record.’ But we wanted to finish the season out.”

Baran was a three-sport athlete at Morton and played volleyball and softball in addition to basketball. She chose to attend IU Northwest based on the strength of its nursing program; playing college basketball was an unexpected bonus.

“I wanted to stay close to home, and I’d heard that the nursing program here was really good,” she said. “Once I had the opportunity to play basketball, I was definitely glad I was here.

“I think I’ve just always liked being part of a team,” Baran explained. “The first practice I came to my freshman year, the girls who were on the team then were just so welcoming. It was a fun experience being with the girls that first year. And I love basketball, too.”

Shelton took over the team under trying circumstances one year after IU Northwest had canceled the women’s season due to lack of participation. He said Baran and the other players who came out that season might literally have saved the program.

“I told our players on Senior Night this year that we probably wouldn’t have a team right now if it weren’t for Erica,” the coach said. “To have someone like that who is so enthusiastic, and who is such a good teammate, and who never gave up, even when things were so tough that first year … that’s what helps you to persevere and have the confidence that things will get better.”

Things got a lot better. Confident that he would have team for the 2008-09 season, Shelton was able to recruit the Lady RedHawks’ current core of veteran players, including Sharon Houston (Merrillville), Nina Wills (Bishop Noll), Juliette Keller (Kouts), Kym Daniels (Hammond Morton), and Jenelle Kapelinski (Lake Central).

That group, with help from subsequent strong recruiting classes, has led IU Northwest to its first two conference championships in the Association of Independent Institutions (A.I.I.) and its first two appearances in the NAIA National Tournament.

The influx of more talent meant less playing time for Baran, who has come off the bench for the Lady RedHawks for the past three seasons. Yet Baran is a team captain whose value to the program transcends minutes played or points scored.

“I always try to have a positive attitude, on or off the court, on the bench, in practice,” she said. “I don’t want to be a negative person. I just try to be a good influence on the team as a captain. Peacemaker, cheerleader, whatever the team needs me to be, that’s what I’m going to do.”

It’s that positive outlook and team-first attitude that earned Baran an NAIA Champions of Character Award at last year’s national tournament. And, this season, when the Lady RedHawks received their A.I.I. Championship trophy, it was Baran who went up to receive the hardware.

“It was an honor,” Baran said of her Champions of Character recognition. “Honestly, I wasn’t expecting it. The whole NAIA experience was awesome, and to win an NAIA award on top of that … it was humbling.”

Although Baran has senior athletic eligibility and will not play next season, she has one year of school remaining. She is currently performing clinical work for her nursing classes, which are both demanding and time-intensive. There was concern that scheduling conflicts might prevent her from making the trip to Iowa for nationals, but Baran said that her IU Northwest professors worked with her schedule so that she could go.

Nursing is a profession that seems to fit well with Baran’s personality.

“I like caring for people,” she said. “I consider myself a caring person. I think I could just make people’s hospital stays a better experience.

“My mom actually found something (I had written) from fifth grade. It was tucked away in a closet somewhere, and it was describing what kind of job you want in your future. Basically, everything I described was nursing, without actually saying it.”

Balancing basketball and her nursing education has been a great challenge, Baran admitted, but she said that she wouldn’t trade her four years with the Lady RedHawks for anything. She credited Shelton with creating a supportive environment for the players.

“He’s really supportive in our schooling and cares a lot about each of us,” she said.  “He wants to make sure that we succeed in all our classes as well as on the court. Trying to balance school with basketball and with a social life and everything, it takes a lot of time, and he understands that.

“He’s a good coach,” Baran said of Shelton. “I know this is his first time doing it, but I think he was the right man for the job.”

As the player who was with him from the humblest of beginnings, Baran knows as well as anyone what the team’s turnaround has meant to Shelton, to the athletes, and to the university.

Now, she is preparing for one final road trip on the RedHawk Bus, to Sioux City, where eighth-seeded IU Northwest will take on first-seeded Morningside College in the opening round of the NAIA Women’s D-II National Tournament next Thursday, March 11, beginning at 7 p.m. at the Tyson Events Center.

“I’m super-excited,” Baran said. “We’ve definitely come a long way from year one.”

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