Heather Oesterle charting own path as CMU opens vs. Iowa in NCAAs

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

The old adage says you never want to replace the legend. Rather, you want to replace the person who replaced the legend. Less pressure, and all.

But that's not how Heather Oesterle chose to tackle her career.

Oesterle has guided the Central Michigan women's basketball team to the NCAA Tournament, marking the program's third consecutive appearance — the previous two under long-time coach Sue Guevara. Oesterle took over last season, after being an assistant under Guevara since 2010.

Central Michigan's head coach Heather Oesterle holds up the MAC tournament championship trophy.

The two spoke Saturday afternoon via FaceTime, Oesterle from Cleveland and Guevara from Mt. Pleasant, after the Chippewas won the Mid-American Conference tournament, beating Bowling Green in the finals.

"It's unbelievable. I got choked up," Oesterle said. "I'm so proud of our team, and I've had an incredible mentor in Coach Guevara.

"She felt I was ready to lead this program, and I wanted to make her proud."

The Chippewas (18-8), who finished second in the MAC regular season amid some ups and downs with consistency this season, learned Monday night they would open the NCAA Tournament against Iowa (18-9) at noon Sunday at the Alamodome.

Central Michigan is the No. 12 seed, a nice nod to the competitiveness of the MAC, and Iowa, led by guard Caitlin Clark, the Big Ten freshman of the year, is the No. 5. All games are being played in the San Antonio area.

The Chippewas became national darlings three years ago, when they made the Sweet 16, then they lost in a one-point thriller to Michigan State the next season. Central Michigan was in line to play in the NCAA Tournament last season, after the MAC tournament was canceled and deferred its bid to the regular-season champion.

But then the NCAA Tournament was canceled, too, making this year extra special.

"It's been good," Oesterle said Monday afternoon, speaking of the last couple days. "I've heard from a lot of people, a lot of alums, and they're just really proud of us.

"I'm just so happy for our players to continue to play."

Central Michigan, the preseason pick to win the MAC, is a dangerous draw for Iowa, given its dynamic backcourt — the Chippewas always seem to have a lethal guard duo.

Senior Micaela Kelly (Detroit King) and sophomore Molly Davis (Midland Dow) combine to average 44.8 points a game and both were first-team all-MAC, and senior Maddy Watters (Rockford) is a dangerous outside threat, shooting 44% from 3-pointers.

Watters found out Monday she was invited to participate in the 3-point contest, to be held Final Four weekend in Indianapolis. CMU's Presley Hudson won that in 2019.

Central Michigan's depth isn't much to speak of, especially now. It's playing with just eight players (seven in one MAC tournament game), because of recent COVID-19 issues and contact tracing. The whole roster will travel to Texas, though, for the NCAA Tournament, even though the four players who've been out won't play. They weren't allowed to travel to Cleveland last week, and Oesterle didn't want them to miss this.

"Just for the future of the program," Oesterle said. "I want them to be hungry."

The NCAA Tournament bid is the sixth ever for Central Michigan, fourth since 2013. Guevara led the Chippewas to three in her 12 seasons, after taking Michigan to the NCAA Tournament three times in seven seasons.

No. 12 Central Michigan vs. No. 5 Iowa

Tip-off: Noon Sunday, Alamodome, San Antonio

TV: ESPN

Records: Central Michigan 18-8; Iowa 18-9

Scouting Central Michigan: Head coach — Heather Oesterle, second season, 40-13. Leaders — Points, Micaela Kelly, 23.9; Rebounds, Jahari Smith, 7.4; Assists — Kelly, 4.3

Scouting Iowa: Head coach — Lisa Bluder, 21st season, 434-230. Leaders — Points, Caitlin Clark, 27.4; Rebounds, McKenna Warnock, 7.8; Assists, Clark, 6-8

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tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984