BOWLING GREEN - Stefanie Wenzel is tough. That s right, tough. She s as tough as nails. She s as tough as a gristly piece of overcooked steak.
The problem is that Wenzel, a slender 6-0 guard on the Bowling Green State University women s basketball team, looks as if she is anything but tough.
“That s my motivation - people looking at me and thinking that I can t do things,” Wenzel said. “Even if people don t think that, that s how I motivate myself.”
The Sussex, Wis., native has been tough on the Falcons opponents this season, ranking third in the MAC in scoring with 15.7 points per game. While Wenzel is one of the best 3-point shooters in BG history - this season her 2.09 treys per game rank fourth in the MAC and her 46.9 percent shooting from behind the arc is fifth-best - the senior has become more than just a jump-shooter.
Many of Wenzel s points come on drives to the basket - drives ending with a thud that finds her knocked onto the court. For example, in BG s win over Cleveland State Saturday the senior finished with 18 points even though she didn t make a single trey.
“I like physical games because I feel people don t think I can handle it, and that motivates me,” Wenzel said. “I like to get up when I get knocked down. I think I m tougher than I look.”
Wenzel s toughness was tested by an injury-plagued high school career. As a junior she struggled to overcome a stress fracture in her foot, and her senior year was marred by a season-ending knee injury. What s worse, surgery on the knee alerted doctors to the fact that Wenzel had a ventricular fibrillation, a heart disease that nearly ended her athletic career.
Doctors finally cleared her to play at BG, but as a freshman she didn t, at least not much. Wenzel played in 16 games, scoring just 36 points. In fact, she played so little newly hired coach Curt Miller had trouble finding tape of Wenzel.
Four minutes into the second game of Wenzel s sophomore season, BG s top player, Francine Miller, was lost for the year with a knee injury. Four games later, Wenzel scored 23 points in just 28 minutes against IUPUI.
“Since that day she s never been out of our lineup and she s been a go-to player,” Miller said. “She s a perfect match for the offense we play: She runs up and down the floor and she has a great release on the 3-point shot.”
Wenzel averaged 11.6 points per game that season, tops on the team and the biggest scoring increase among MAC players that year.
“It was horrible when Fran went down, but it really did open up a spot for me,” Wenzel said. “It gave me a chance, and all I needed was that chance. That one game kind of spurred me on, thinking, I really can do this. And confidence is my biggest thing. When I m not confident, I m not very good.”
As a junior Wenzel s numbers went down slightly - 10.1 points per contest. The decrease is easy to explain. Francine Miller returned and averaged 15.2.
But that explanation doesn t satisfy Wenzel.
“I guess I didn t feel I played with a lot of confidence and I didn t attack,” Wenzel said of her junior season.
“I settled for the 3-pointers and just played soft. I put a lot of pressure on myself to improve after my sophomore year, and when that didn t happen I got down and it took me a while to get back up.”
Wenzel has had lots of “ups” so far this season. She has scored in double figures in her last 10 games, including a pair of 27-point efforts. And that scoring has come despite the emergence of a promising freshman class that has given the Falcons more than just Wenzel as a scoring option.
“We have tweaked our offense to run more things to her position than we did,” Miller said. “But our freshmen s ability to score has helped Stefanie. We have other people who can step up and score, and her numbers will go up because we have an inside presence.”
And yes, Miller was quick to agree that Wenzel is tough.
“One, she is a very rugged player,” Miller said. “She has missed hardly any practice since I arrived [as coach]. She would get knocked down every day - nearly every drill - and she keeps coming back for more. She also plays through knick-knacky injuries, she plays banged up, and she plays through a lot of minor injuries that other kids wouldn t.”
Wenzel said the fact that she doesn t look tough has made her mentally tough.
“I know I don t look like a college player, but I think it s fun to get pushed around,” she said. “People look at me and must think, She s can t be good. And I use that as motivation.”
Miller agreed that Wenzel s mind is what makes her a tough basketball player.
“Stefanie can have a bad game and it won t affect her,” Miller said. “She truly believes in her heart that she ll step up and make shots and make plays in the next game even if she has a bad game.”
But Wenzel admitted that “tough” might not be the word she would use to describe herself.
“I know I m not big,” Wenzel said. “But I think I m feisty. I just keep pushing, and I try not to give up.
“When I had my heart problem, they told me I might not be able to play again, so I try to do the best that I can because it almost was taken away from me.”