HOUGHTON - To watch Michigan Tech junior Taylor Stippel attack the rim is to realize what the Tasmanian Devil might play basketball like if Taz had a smile plastered to his face the whole time.
Stippel brings an unconventional game to the post to compensate for her 5-foot-11 frame, full of spins, fadeaways, running hooks, flip shots and reverse lay-ups. Occasionally all at the same time.
But from this whirling dervish around the hoop comes a strikingly efficient scorer - Stippel shot 48 percent from the field last year, second-best on the team - and the shoulders upon which the Huskies' NCAA Tournament aspirations rest this season.
Michigan Tech’s Taylor Stippel puts up her twisting fadeaway shot on a Lake Superior State player last season. Her unorthodox game emerged late last season and will be key in 2012-13. (DMG photo by David Archambeau)
In making consecutive Elite Eight appearances and reaching the national championship two years ago, the one constant on offense for Tech was a post player the ball could run through. If the Huskies are to return to the NCAA Tournament after missing out last season with a 20-7 record, Stippel will have to be that attention-demander down low.
"That is what our offense has been for the past couple years of success is an offense built around a post player," Cameron said. "We try to surround the post with people who can shoot and work it in-out. On the trip to (the national championship) we had Lisa Staehlin in there and she drew four sets of eyes with every movement. ... We can still have that.
"When I shoot with her I never expect her to miss," Cameron added of Stippel. "She has earned that trust in everyone. She doesn't miss. She shoots so much, so often that its just automatic now. We have really high expectations for her this year. ... and as long as she stays calm she is fully capable."
A junior now, it took a stroke of good fortune for Tech to even find Stippel out of Woodbury, Minn.
With normal recruiting grounds in Wisconsin and Michigan, only coincidence and a well-timed vacation led to then-head coach John Barnes and Stippel crossing paths.
"I was really lucky," Stippel said. "I actually never played AAU basketball, I was a three-sport athlete and I liked to focus on whatever was in season, so when softball was in season I was all about softball. But I actually participated in a bunch of camps between my sophomore and junior year and (former) coach (John) Barnes was actually just visiting family in Minnesota and randomly showed up at one of them. Definitely pretty lucky."
From the first day Stippel set foot in the SDC, her presence on the team has been marked by her boundless, bubbly energy - "she is just go, go, go all the time, and I love that about her," Cameron said - and struggles to consistently turn that energy into effective play.
Stippel took the unusual route last season of hardly seeing any game time in the first three months, averaging just 4.5 minutes a game in November through January with eight 'did not play-coaches decisions,' before exploding with 16 points, nine rebounds, four blocks and three steals in a weekend set against GLIAC champions Ashland and a win over Lake Erie.
From that point forward she was a permanent fixture in the lineup, eventually spending more minutes on the floor than starter Lynn Giesler, leading the team with 18 points and nine boards in the GLIAC Tournament quarterfinal win against Lake Erie. Her cameo as a super-sub helped Stippel garner a preseason second-team All-GLIAC spot this year on the coaches' votes.
"I am really proud of her preseason honors, because she deserved them," Cameron said. "And just in a few games from the impression she made last year."
Still, it took Stippel longer than she would have preferred to make an impact on the court because relentless enthusiasm led her into bad positions too often defensively - basically overthinking everything, as Cameron described it - and two-way play is a must to see minutes under Cameron.
"It was just learning to stay calm on defense," Stippel said. "I was too springy, jumpy all the time."
But when it finally clicked, it all came together splendidly.
"She put in a ton of extra hours even when she wasn't playing and that is the sign of someone who is going to be really good," Cameron said. "She needed to calm down and she needed to get comfortable all the time and she needed to prove that she could stay comfortable in a game situation. And we got it from her, but it took some time."
Now, Stippel is the second-most important player on a team that will by vying for the GLIAC North crown, with only senior point guard Sam Hoyt ranking as more irreplaceable.
Stippel relishes the role. The junior spent the summer in Minnesota expanding her effective range out to the three-point line in preparation for the offensive responsibilities she must shoulder.
"I am excited for it, I have been thinking about it all summer," Stippel said. "If we don't have an in-and-out game it is really hard to score, so we need someone to throw the ball to down low; and I don't want to say it is hard to get motivated in the summer, but being at home and alone it definitely helps knowing you are going to play a big role."
Of course, don't expect her conventional role to lead to a more conventional repertoire.
Stippel still plays like the defender is a tricky geometry problem and the more creative the solution the more satisfying the answer. Whether facing up or with her body on the block, whatever shot is least expected is likely the one Stippel will turn to first.
"I don't know if I have so much developed it, or if I have just always been doing it that way," Stippel said with sheepish grin. "Definitely we are not taught to do that. ... People just tend to laugh in film."
"It goes in. It just goes in, so you are never going to yell at someone when every time they make it," Cameron added. "We expect her to make those crazy, backwards, upside down shots. She just does it. Her body contorts in all these strange ways and she finds a way to finish.
"She has free reign. When she is open we want her to shoot the ball."