When she first took the court to play in the Green Bay women's basketball summer pick-up games, Mehryn Kraker thought she had made a mistake. She thought maybe she wasn't cut out for this.
These people were out of their minds.
Five years later, the espnW mid-major player of the year is the embodiment of a particular brand of obsession that has produced at least a share of 19 consecutive conference titles.
The summer games in Green Bay are the stuff of legend, at least in that part of the women's basketball world that covers the northeast corner of Wisconsin. It isn't just that games end only after the player who scored the winning basket confirms it by then hitting free throws. Miss, and the game continues. You see that here and there. No, it's the way games come to sudden halts. With no coaches in the gym, players take it upon themselves to stop and correct mistakes. Older players coach newcomers, and they spare no feelings. You do things the Green Bay way.
There are tangible reasons Kraker is the player of the year. She ranks just outside the top 50 in scoring, at 17.4 points per game, despite playing for a program that doesn't build offenses around individuals. Either by points or assists -- she's the team leader in both -- Kraker played a direct role in 39 percent of Green Bay's field goals. That is equal to Oregon State's Sydney Wiese and greater than the likes of Duke's Lexie Brown or Maryland's Shatori Walker-Kimbrough.
Green Bay's most prolific 3-point shooter, Kraker has what is best described as a crafty game that allows her to convert 2-point attempts at the same rate as Alaina Coates or Napheesa Collier.
All of that for a team that beat Belmont, Chattanooga, Drake, Elon, Little Rock, Marquette and South Dakota State (combined record 167-47) and pushed Notre Dame to the final whistle in South Bend.
But tangibles don't fully explain how a program wins 19 consecutive conference titles or how a team for which almost half the minutes come from freshmen and sophomores continues that streak. That happens because Kraker didn't make a mistake. She was exactly the right person to make sure a culture lived on.
Mid-major coach of the year: Drake's Jennie Baranczyk
That Jennie Baranczyk had a vision of building something greater when she was hired at Drake in 2012 is hardly surprising.
Except for someone replacing Geno Auriemma, a new coach should have a vision of something more than came before. Drake, while a semi-regular NCAA tournament participant in days gone by, was hardly Connecticut when Baranczyk arrived. It was a mid-major program stuck in neutral, good enough to avoid eyesore status but not nearly good enough to break out of the mid-major confines that trap hundreds of programs in perpetual anonymity.
Ranked No. 20, between Kentucky and Syracuse, Drake isn't anonymous these days.
Baranczyk sold her vision first to a recruiting class of Lizzy Wendell and Caitlin Ingle, the two players who as seniors are now the cornerstones of the revival. Around those two a roster was crafted to make the most of their senior seasons. Building block by building block, Drake grew.
Then the Bulldogs lost Maddy Dean to injury before they played a game this season, removing last year's third-leading scorer from the equation. Next Becca Jonas missed time early in the season, and one of the team's only established post presences was unavailable for close losses to Creighton and Iowa State that otherwise could have formed the foundation of NCAA tournament at-large credentials.
We're not finished. The reigning Missouri Valley Conference freshman of the year, Sara Rhine lasted just eight games into her encore before her own season-ending injury.
No mid-major has much margin for error. The depth of talent simply isn't enough to withstand many blows. Even with Wendell and Ingle untouched, Drake's best constructed plans could have crumbled into the relative rubble of WNIT disappointment. Instead, with freshmen and sophomores filling in, Drake went from a 3-3 start to a 25-4 record as the MVC tournament begins. It ran the table in the MVC regular season and dominated to such a degree that it likely doesn't need the automatic bid available to return to the NCAA tournament.
Having the vision is one thing. Keeping it in focus is why Baranczyk is our mid-major coach of the year.