SOUTH BEND — Aimee Litka Niespodziany admitted that her first season as a women's college basketball coach was a baptism by fire.
"Last year, I wasn't sure what to expect," said Niespodziany, a former star at South Bend St. Joseph High School and Valparaiso University. "This year, I have my feet on the ground a little more."
Niespodziany's last season at Valpo was 2009. She spent a year with the Crusaders as a graduate assistant and then returned to South Bend. She decided to accept the challenge of building a program at Holy Cross College last season.
"It's a lot of fun to build a program," Niespodziany said. "I'm blessed with some great girls. They come ready to work every day. We always joke that they make my job easier, because they want to compete in practice. They want to get better. They're in the gym a lot on their own. They motivate each other. They're really good about getting out there and getting after each other. The work the players have put in during the off-season shows the strides they've made, so we're looking forward to a good season."
Holy Cross finished 10-22 last year. The Saints won four of their last nine games and advanced to the second-round of the Chicagoland Conference Tournament.
Niespodziany has some veteran help on her staff. Her father, Clem Litka, is her assistant coach.
"We work really well together," Niespodziany said. "His playbook is a little deeper than mine, so that helps me. I'm pretty fresh off of playing, so that helps me relate to the players well. I know what they're going through. The great thing is, they're very coachable."
Holy Cross returns Lauren Malinowski, a 5-foot-2 guard from Dearborn Heights, Mich., who averaged 12.9 points and 4.4 assists last season.
"Lauren is a senior leader for us," Niespodziany said. "She was a first-team all-conference selection last season. She's our floor general. She's a motivator. She will push you and make you better. She's our point guard."
Former NorthWood star Lindsey Steffen, a 5-8 junior forward, averaged 15.5 points and 10.0 rebounds and was another first-team all-conference selection.
"Lindsey is aggressive and a very athletic four player," Niespodziany said. "She's a competitor and definitely going to give you everything she has."
Also on the roster is former Riley player Jacques Donaldson, a 5-9 senior.
"Jacques is very athletic," Niespodziany said. "Hopefully, this year, she sees more minutes. She's a very good senior leader. She's done a good job of taking some underclassmen under her wing and showing them the ropes."
Niespodziany hopes to build on the progress the Saints made last season.
"With the realignment in our league, it's extremely tough right now," Niespodziany said. "We have four teams in our league that could be in the Top 25. We have teams coming from Division I into the league.
"I know we're going to compete every game. We have the mentality that we're going to come out and surprise people. The girls are committed to it.
"We have everybody back from last season, and I think we have matured a lot. We're definitely the underdog. We're always the underdog, but we have a chance of surprising people in the conference."
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