Former Saxony Lutheran stars Mueller, Wieser haven't skipped a beat as teams prep for NAIA national tournament
If there is one thing that's always held true about Brianna Mueller, it's that she's always made things look easy.
The former Saxony Lutheran standout compiled all-state honors in three different sports while earning the titles of Southeast Missourian Girls Basketball Player of the Year (twice), Semoball Awards Girls Basketball Player of the Year (twice) and Semoball Awards Female Athlete of the Year.
So why would climbing the ladder change anything?
Mueller continued her basketball career this season at Lindenwood-Belleville and promptly earned herself the title of American Midwest Conference Freshman of the Year while leading the Lynx to an unprecedented season.
On Thursday, Mueller will help lead Lindenwood-Belleville -- in the midst of a 22-9 campaign that has set the program record for single-season wins -- into the school's first ever NAIA National Championship tournament in Billings, Montana, the first time the event has ever been held west of Kansas City.
The seventh-seeded Lynx will take on second-seeded Vanguard (Calif.), currently ranked No. 5 in the nation, at 10:45 p.m.
"We're just ecstatic to be here," Mueller said Tuesday in a phone interview from Billings. "This is history we made."
Not surprisingly, the transition to the college game has been smooth as silk for Mueller. The hardest part, in fact, may have been lining up across the court from a familiar face.
Former Crusader teammate Raegan Wieser has had a standout freshman season of her own at Columbia College, where she earned third-team All-Conference recognition. The two friends faced off twice this season in conference play.
"It was so weird," Mueller said. "To be honest, I didn't like it. I'd much rather be on the same side in the same jersey playing for the same coach. But I'm so happy for her ... because she's happy where she's at and she's doing so well at Columbia.
"It's so weird though, because the first game I didn't know whether to smile and act like her friend, because she's technically the enemy."
Bragging rights between the two friends will have to wait, because the teams split the regular-season series. The Lynx captured a Dec. 15 meeting 68-63, with Mueller scored 14 points while Wieser had 11 points and seven rebounds; the Cougars returned the favor on Feb. 2, 64-52, with Wieser posting 19 points while Mueller scored 13.
Now both former Saxony Lutheran stars are setting up camp in Billings, as Wieser and her Columbia squad are also set to compete in the NAIA tournament.
The Cougars (26-6), seeded third, take on sixth-seeded Montana Western (23-8) today at 5:45 p.m.
"We're all really excited," Wieser said. "We all understand we have a great opportunity here. We know how well we can play and we can go far, so to know we can be the team to get past that first round ... we're just really excited. We've been preparing for this first game for a while and I think we're ready to play.
"It's been a great ride. It was definitely a big change coming in. It's a lot different than high school basketball, but it's definitely made me a better player and I love my teammates and coach (Jessica) Keller is a great coach and she knows what she's talking about. I couldn't have had a better freshman year."
Wieser started all 32 games, finishing third on the team with 10.9 points per game, second with 4.9 rebounds per game and first with .94 blocks per game. She was among the AMC leaders in double-doubles with four.
"I didn't really know what to expect," Wieser said. "I just wanted to come in and work my hardest and give my 100-percent effort. This is a really good program and they've been to the national tournament and last year they had a great record. So far, they haven't been able to get past that first round, and we're hoping this year we can get past that first round."
Wieser believes that goal is "really attainable," pointing to a tough conference schedule -- the AMC provided five teams for the field of 32 -- and some quality wins, like one over Vanguard (27-3), which is Lindenwood-Belleville's open-round opponent.
The season has already shown that there's no reason to count out Mueller or the Lynx. Despite having to make adjustments to the college game -- she said tighter defense means less time to make decisions -- Mueller leads LBU with 15.4 ppg and she scored at least 20 points in a game eight times, which was good enough to make her the only freshman on the All-AMC First Team. She is shooting 43.6 percent from the field and 38.6 percent from 3-point range, and her 85.6-percent shooting from the free-throw line is the second-best single-season clip all-time for the program.
Her immediate success is no shock to someone who knows her well.
"No, that doesn't surprise me," Wieser said. "She's a great player. She's their leading scorer and she's done a lot for that team. She's brought them success. It's really cool to see how her success has continued into college ball. It's a whole different game, and to see her still succeed."
Mueller emphasized that the Lynx, who have never had a year quite like this one, are just enjoying the fact that they'll be playing in the tournament for a national championship, but there's plenty of reason for Lindenwood-Belleville to remain optimistic as well -- it twice took conference foe and top overall seed Freed-Hardeman (33-0), the only undefeated team in the tournament, to overtime this year.
"They're a great team and both times we played them we could have won, it could have gone either way," Mueller said. " ... That means we can play with anybody and I think that's given us confidence that we can play with anybody, hang with anybody and win any game."
Regardless of how Columbia and Lindenwood-Belleville do once the games tip off, both players know from experience that it's as much about the journey as it is the result.
"Just like whenever I went to state in high school, whether you win or lose, the memories and experience you have with your team are the things you remember," Mueller said. "Yeah, it'll be awesome if we win and advance, but just the fact we're here is incredible. I mean, we're here in Montana, and I'd never would have just come to Montana an on my own."
Wieser and her teammates left Columbia, Missouri, via airplane on Saturday, connecting in Dallas before flying to Seattle, where the Cougars spent some time sightseeing before taking off for Billings and arriving late Sunday night (or early Monday morning, depending on your perspective).
Mueller and the Lynx took a less glamorous charter bus, splitting up a 19-hour drive between two days and making a pit stop at Mount Rushmore.
Regardless of how they got there, the two former teammates have faced up to the many challenges of college basketball and tackled them head on, continuing to generate the success they found at Saxony Lutheran, where they had their own historic run.
And, hey, the bracket lines up so that they could face one more time this season -- in the national championship.
"That would be pretty crazy. That would be insane," Mueller said. "That would be cool but really crazy."
The more realistic view is that this will be the first of many more successes for the duo in college. Even if they no longer do it as teammates, everything else seems to be business as usual.
"The season's been pretty incredible," Mueller said. "I didn't know how well I'd adjust to college basketball because it's a lot different, but I think my coach and teammates really helped. ... I went with it and it's basketball -- it's what I love to do."
The entire NAIA National Championship tournament is available streaming online for a fee at www.NAIANetwork.com. The championship game will be broadcast on ESPN3 at 8:05 p.m. on March 21.