She has the height, athleticism and offensive skill set to be one of the top post players in the conference. But for Cassie Rochel, one key piece of the puzzle is missing: aggressiveness.
As the tallest player on the Wisconsin women’s basketball roster, the sophomore forward has shown bursts of dominance this season as she readies to take over as the Badgers’ primary option inside the paint. Following in the intimidating footsteps of former University of Wisconsin stars Lin Zastrow and Tara Steinbauer — both of whom last suited up for the cardinal and white in 2010-11 — Rochel will soon be tasked with carrying on the recent tradition of dominating Badgers’ post players.
This season, two seniors, forwards Anya Covington and Ashley Thomas, have anchored Wisconsin’s game around the hoop. Rochel’s teammates are confident she will find the confidence to become a big-time scorer.
En route to averaging 16.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and four blocks per contest as a senior in high school, Rochel was named Miss Minnesota. Even so, she admits her transition to Big Ten play didn’t exactly go as planned.
“It was definitely different from high school and playing almost every game, all game and starting since I was in seventh grade,” Rochel said. “And now I just got my first start my sophomore year in college.”
“I had to learn how to just deal with my emotions, not get frustrated day after day and game after game with not playing as much as I wanted or starting or anything like that and just kind of channel that into practice and take my anger out there.”
Earning her first career start in a quality win over Northwestern Sunday, head coach Bobbie Kelsey has seen growth in the sophomore forward but notes Rochel must carry over her impressive performances in practice onto the Kohl Center floor.
Averaging 14.5 minutes per game (up from 6.5 last year) as an often reserve for Covington and Thomas, teammates and coaches alike feel perfectly confident putting the ball in Rochel’s hands. But she admits that for no identifiable reason, she has trouble carrying over her tenacity and confidence in practice when an opponent lines up on the other side of the court.
“She sees now that she will play more, and she has the potential to start, if we need her to,” Kelsey said. “You just want it for her so bad and you can see that she can [score], and it just hasn’t quite been there for her. But we always believed she could do it.”
Never were the sophomore’s talents on display more than in a November victory over Montana State, when the Lakeville, Minn., native notched 14 points and pulled down 11 boards, both career highs. Rochel attributes her increased level of play to the fact that Covington was confined to the sidelines because of injury.
While the high-scoring night may have surprised followers of Kelsey’s squad, her fellow Badgers viewed it more as an “I told you so” moment. Analogized to a gazelle by Covington for her versatility on the hardwood — with the coveted ability to nail a turnaround jumper near the hoop and step outside to sink a shot from three-point land — teammates believe it’s only a matter of time before her talent comes through more clearly in games.
“Her shot’s improved tremendously,” Kelsey said. “When we first started working with her it wasn’t very consistent. You don’t see it in the game, but she can hit that high post shot.”
With her scoring up to 4.3 points per contest and ranking third on the team with four rebounds per game despite fairly limited playing time, her greatest fault may be her natural tendency to vie for the assist rather than the score. According to Rochel, even in high school she always first looked to hand the ball off to a teammate, and it’s precisely that attitude that keeps her eyes off the basket during games.
Rochel shoots better than 52 percent from the field and has proven efficient when the ball’s in her hands. But as she explained, she has greater confidence in those around her.
“I just have more confidence in other people — I know if I get Taylor [Wurtz] the ball, she’s going to either score, get an and-one or get a foul or something — in some way benefit the team,” Rochel said. “And Anya the same way. I have confidence in everyone else, I just need to find that confidence in myself.”
As Covington and Thomas prepare for graduation, the scoring burden will soon fall on Rochel’s shoulders, but the gregarious Covington says it’s only a matter of time before the sophomore becomes the “beast” on the court of which she is capable.
In rather fitting fashion, she shied away from making any guarantees, but the sophomore forward believes that when the spotlight shines brightly on her next season, she’ll be ready.
Those who join her on the court feel it’s partially their job to instill confidence in the Minnesota native and bring out the aggressiveness that could have top Big Ten contenders losing sleep.
“Our main thing is just encouragement, just being there for her, because that’s the biggest thing you can do,” Covington said. “Then continuing to do the things that we can do, so hopefully she can see she can do the same things we’re doing, and actually surpass us.”
But, as Rochel understands better than anyone else, only she can instill that crucial confidence in her game.