Pausing before the stretch run

Buffalo State struggled with Justin Mitchell out. He’s not missing any longer.
Buffalo State athletics photo

Teams have started to clinch regular season titles and the first regional rankings will be published this week. So we must officially be in the stretch run. Here’s a few points of view on the men’s and women’s basketball season so far — who has surprised, who has disappointed and who is the player of the year…so far.

    MEN

Who is the biggest surprise?
Gordon Mann: The Hope Flying Dutchmen didn’t make the preseason Top 25. In fact, they wouldn’t have made the Top 30 since they were seven slots out of the preseason poll. Now Hope is the only team left that is unbeaten against Division III opponents.
Pat Coleman: Whitworth. Losing the consensus Player of the Year from a team with an already-tight rotation, then losing the head coach, seemed like a recipe for mortality. But the Pirates have done pretty well for themselves, at 18-3 with one of the losses to a scholarship school, one to UW-Whitewater and another to rival Whitman. The addition of another transfer, Idris Lasisi, has been huge for Whitworth. (Understandable about Hope — however, since they wouldn’t provide our voters with a preseason breakdown of who was returning, we didn’t speculate.)
Dave McHugh: New York University. The Violets always seem to start their season strong, but once they enter UAA play they have struggled in recent years. After losing to Brandeis, it appeared to be deja vu, but NYU has since then only lost one more game against Carnegie Mellon at home (figure that one out!). They have beaten Chicago and Wash U. on the road and still have those teams to play in New York City. However, the big test will be the three games on the road against Emory, Rochester, and Brandeis.

Who is the biggest disappointment?
Gordon Mann: Rochester isn’t the only preseason Top 10 team to fall off the national radar. Marietta is in the same predicament. But unlike Marietta, Rochester doesn’t have a chance to save its season by winning its postseason conference tournament. The UAA awards its automatic bid to the regular season title winner and the Yellowjackets are three games out of first place with four to play.
Pat Coleman: Williams. The Ephs have struggled in the second semester. Heck, even in the first semester, a home loss to Salem State is not an indication of a stellar season. Whether it’s the back injury or the absence of Troy Whittington, James Wang is simply not the player we’ve seen on the national scene.
Dave McHugh: Marietta. The Pioneers looked poised to dominate the OAC, but instead have struggled with two loses to Ohio Northern and one against Baldwin Wallace (both behind Marietta in the standings). They have also lost to the two teams ahead of them, Capital and John Carroll, and still have to face both teams in the last two games of the season. Those five in-conference loses with potentially more could put the Pioneers in a very difficult role of a road team who needs to win the conference title to get an NCAA AQ.

What team are you buying stock in?
Gordon Mann: Wittenberg seems like a good buy on the virtual Division III basketball stock market. The Tigers sit atop a quality conference and have just three regional losses. So they are in decent position to host an NCAA tournament pod … if they can win their last four games … and the NCAC tournament. Well, stock picking is speculative, isn’t it?
Pat Coleman: Buffalo State. The Bengals dropped off the radar with back-to-back losses, one of them by 24, when Justin Mitchell (12.8 points per game) was out. They’ve bounced back to win six in a row, averaging 95.5 points per game in the process. They lost to Oswego State in December and must travel to Oswego on Feb. 17.
Dave McHugh: Transylvania. There is something about how the Pioneers are playing basketball that impresses me. They have two loses on the season to Gustavus Adolphus, who was a giant killer in Las Vegas, and Defiance, which is a head scratcher. Coach Brian Lane nearly broke his dad’s record for start to a season at 10-0 with a team that is unselfish (check out their assist numbers) and several players like Ethan Spurlin, Brandon Rash, Barrett Meyer and Tate Cox who contributing on all levels. And if they don’t get very far in the NCAA Tournament this season, get ready because pretty nearly the entire team returns next season.

Which ranked team are you not sold on?
Gordon Mann: MIT. Dominating the NEWMAC is not a precursor to national success. The NEWMAC teams have received 17 bids to the NCAA tournament since 2002 (sixth most among all conferences) and won 16 games. MIT’s own NCAA tournament record is 2-3 in the last four years with loses to DeSales, Rochester and Farmingdale State.
Pat Coleman: Hope. Clearly they’ve beaten everyone we would expect them to, though, with the only loss to D-I Western Michigan. I just am not sure who they have beaten, because they play so many non-Division III teams. It’s hard to tell what a win against Cornerstone or Mount Vernon Nazarene means. The best win on a D-III level is a one-point win against Wheaton (Ill.) on a neutral floor. That at least puts Hope on par with the best teams in the CCIW, so considering them for No. 1 is not at all a stretch. But just not sold.
Dave McHugh: Franklin and Marshall. The Diplomats have two loses in a sub-par Centennial Conference: on the road against Muhlenberg and at home against Washington College. Outside of the conference, F&M has played mostly lowly teams with just ONE game outside of the Mayser Gymnasium (Lancaster Bible) and two games against Oneonta State (2-19), though just one of those games counts in the eyes of the NCAA. In all, they are 19-2 against an opponent record of 150-164 (.478) (counting Oneonta State twice, it would be 152-183). They are having trouble playing an inside-outside game, which has made them tough in the past. It appears teams are choosing to stop either Hayk Gyokchyan or Georgio Milligan, the teams only major threats, and that seems to be working to keep games tight.

Who is your player of the year so far?
Gordon Mann: Ryan Sharry of Middlebury leads his team in scoring (20.6 per game), rebounding (10.1 per game) and blocks (32). He scores efficiently – 66.3 percent shooting from the field and 42.4 percent from behind the arc. And he has helped establish the Panthers as legit national title contenders.
Pat Coleman: Matt Johnson of Chicago. The guy’s streak of late is obviously impressive, and he has been carrying a Maroons team that would otherwise really be struggling. He’s upped his average above 20 points per game, shoots 38 percent from three-point range (with a lot of attempts) and is 88 percent from the line. But another game like Sunday’s at Rochester and I’ll be looking for someone else.
Dave McHugh: Matt Addison of Hardin-Simmons. The nation’s second leading scorer (28.0 ppg) has also made his Hardin-Simmons team much better – e.g. he missed the Cowboys’ home game against Mary Hardin-Baylor which the Cowboys’ lost in overtime. Addison is tough to stop because he can slice to the rim, stop and hit from 12 feet, and is 33rd in the nation in three-point shooting at .417. And don’t put him on the line, because he is shooting .883 which is 15th best in Division III. And we aren’t done… he has 2.6 steals/game (20th in the NCAA) and handing out 4.9 assists/game (33rd in the NCAA). He is also a difficult defender, usually taking on the opponent’s biggest threat on the outside. Oh, and he is a father of two and a Ministry major.

What is the best conference race?
Gordon Mann: MAC Freedom, though the MAC Commonwealth race is also very good. In both cases, only the top four teams make the conference playoffs and at least six are alive. On the Freedom side, it’s unlikely any team will get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, so the urgency adds to the entertainment value. Defending champion Delaware Valley won’t make the playoffs, but the Aggies can still play spoiler. Their two conference wins come against co-first place holders Wilkes and Eastern.
Pat Coleman: The NJAC North, where two strong teams will get left out of the conference playoffs, while either Kean (5-18, 4-7) or TCNJ (8-15, 2-9) will get in because of being in the NJAC South. In the NJAC North, New Jersey City (16-5, 6-4), Rutgers-Newark(13-9, 6-4), Montclair State (16-7, 6-5) and Ramapo (15-7, 6-5) are battling for two playoff spots.
Dave McHugh: I could have gone with the NCAC, UAA, or NESCAC, but the Landmark Conference has surprised me. While Scranton is up two games with three to play on Juniata and Moravian (tied for second) and three games on Catholic and Susquehanna (tied for fourth), these teams have been beating on each other all season. And then there is Merchant Marine. The Mariners have rebounded with three straight wins including games against Juniata and Catholic to put them 5-6 and one game back of a playoff spot. Who makes the four-team tournament and in what positions won’t be decided until the final game of the season. And then anything is possible for the tournament crown since anyone can beat anyone, anywhere.

    WOMEN

Who is the biggest surprise?
Gordon Mann: UW-Eau Claire and Mary Washington both qualify as pleasant surprises, but the team that made the biggest jump from preseason to now is Franklin. The Grizzlies had no votes in the preseason Top 25 and then vaulted into the first regular season poll, buoyed by a 52-47 win over preseason No. 10 DePauw.
Pat Coleman: St. Thomas. The Tommies having a team in the top 15 in our poll is not surprising, but it being the women, that’s a different story. Now, it could be said that the Tommies have lost to the best team (or only regionally prominent team) they’ve played, and that was the opener, 70-53 at UW-Stevens Point on Nov. 16.
Dave McHugh: Mary Washington. I know Deena Applebury can not only do a terrific job of coaching, but she is also a solid recruiter, but I didn’t see a 21-0 record at this point in the season. York (Pa.) is one game behind them, but already lost to the Eagles 59-42 in Fredricksburg, Vir. The Eagles have also dominated many of their other opponents while getting solid victories over teams like Christopher Newport, Ferrum, and Keene State. The Eagles are also outscoring their opponents by nearly 23 ppg with seniors Katie Wimmer and Jenna McRae leading the way, but not the team’s only threats.

Who is the biggest disappointment?
Gordon Mann: Denison. DePauw moved into the NCAC this season and instantly became the favorite over the Big Red, who were last year’s conference champions. But Denison still had high expectations coming off a 28-1 year and was ranked No. 12 in the preseason. Now, a year removed from going undefeated in the NCAC, Denison is 7-5 in conference.
Pat Coleman: Muhlenberg. Rallying from 17 down at Rochester last season put the Mules in the Sweet 16. The Mules’ standout player, Alexandra Chili, returned this year. But this year, when the Mules rallied from 17 down, it was to beat Washington College (12-9). Without that rally, Muhlenberg would have lost six of its past eight games. Five of eight isn’t much better.
Dave McHugh: I have to agree with Pat and say Muhlenberg. The Mules looked to be in control of the Centennial Conference after winning their first 12 games of the season and 7 in the conference climbing to as high as #9 in the country. But, they have stumbled badly since then. They still have time to turn it around with five games left in the season, but they have put themselves in a win-or-go-home scenario in the conference tournament.

What team are you buying stock in?
Gordon Mann: Illinois Wesleyan, and I’ve pretty much cornered this market. The Titans had 38 points in the Week 9 Top 25 poll and I account for almost a third of them because Illinois Wesleyan is No. 14 on my ballot. From what I’ve seen, they have a great scorer in Olivia Lett and good depth. They are physical enough to beat big teams and quick enough to beat small teams. On paper, only two of their losses are “bad” and even those aren’t terrible. UW-Whitewater is a quality program from an elite conference and Wheaton (Ill.) beat the Titans in double overtime.
Pat Coleman: Mount Union. Although they’re getting about as high as I feel comfortable. I’ll feel more comfortable in a couple of weeks, if they win at Ohio Northern (18-3, 12-2 OAC) and Baldwin-Wallace (14-7, 9-5).
Dave McHugh: If this was last week, I would have said Millsaps, but after losing two games this past weekend, my focus has switched to Centre. The Colonels have one blemish on their resume which was a heart-breaking OT loss to Thomas More when a jumper wouldn’t fall at the buzzer. They have beaten Millsaps and Rhodes to site 2.5 games up on their side of the SCAC while outscoring their opponents by 15. And Maggie Prewitt is leading the way with 16.6 ppg, 6.2 rpg, and 7.3 apg while shooting .460 from the floor, .385 from beyond the arc, and .890 from the charity strip… impressive.

Which ranked team are you not sold on?
Gordon Mann: Lewis and Clark has been high on my ballot all season. But after watching the Pioneers struggle late against George Fox again on Tuesday, I’m not sure what to make of them (more on the Bruins below). The Pioneers’ win over Kean is nice, but that was months ago and the Cougars were missing second leading scorer Brittany Powell. If Lewis and Clark is as good this year as they were last year, that’s still pretty good. But last year’s version of the Pioneers split its regular season series with George Fox and still ended the year without a single vote in the Final Top 25 poll. Maybe the Pios’ Top 10 ranking is too high.
Pat Coleman: Franklin. It’s hard to argue with the only team that beat DePauw. Digging into the box score reminds me that Ali Ross fouled out for DePauw at Franklin with just five points, and it’s the only time a DePauw player has fouled out all season. The Tigers shot only 33 percent from the floor and made two three-pointers. Scoring only 36 in the home loss to Manchester is a head-scratcher. The HCAC isn’t traditionally a strong Division III women’s basketball conference, and while Franklin played three MIAA teams, they were Kalamazoo, Trine and Alma, a combined 10-27 in the MIAA.
Dave McHugh: Juniata. I realize the Eagles only have one loss and they have a two-game lead on Catholic in the Landmark Conference. They also have swept Scranton, but the Lady Royals are no longer the dominating team of yester-year. However, I have seen the Eagles in action not only in person, but via video, and I have not been impressed. They can’t seem to put together a 40 minute game and even in games they seem to dominate, they tend to allow opponents to hang around just a bit too much

Who is your player of the year so far?
Gordon Mann: Hannah Munger of George Fox. Among the players I’ve seen live or on video, Calvin’s Carissa Verkaik has the most unique skill set and Amherst’s Caroline Stedman is the one I’d want most in the clutch. But Munger is the most irreplaceable to her team. Her height in the middle takes away the opponents’ inside game and her athleticism makes her tough to stop on offense. The Bruins would still be good without Munger. They are championship contenders with her.
Pat Coleman: Well, I like those players too. UW-Eau Claire center Ellen Plendl belongs in that conversation as well. Even though she only averages 12.2 points per game, the 6-5 senior also averages 10.7 rebounds and 3.9 blocked shots.
Dave McHugh: I know, this IS a strange pick, but Megan Robertson has been a major factor in Amherst’s success this season (along with Caroline Stedman). In fact, Coach G.P. Gromacki will tell you she is their biggest surprise. Robertson is a freshman who is third on the team in scoring at 10.7 ppg, first on the team in rebounding (7.4) while shooting .531 and blocking 22 shots. And while she may play a lot of time inside, she can easily switch to point guard which gives Amherst all kinds of match-up advantages.

What is the best conference race?
Gordon Mann: The WIAC has three ranked teams (Stevens Point, Eau Claire and River Falls) and two others who’ve proved they are contenders (Whitewater and La Crosse). Stevens Point leads the pack, and it split the regular season series with fifth place La Crosse. If the teams don’t beat each other up too much, this conference could put four teams in the NCAA tournament.
Pat Coleman: The Iowa Conference. Four teams are within a half-game of the lead, with Simpson and Wartburg at 9-3, Coe and Loras at 9-4. Loras has yet to travel to Wartburg and Simpson, so they have the toughest road to the top seed of the bunch. Coe also travels to Wartburg, so while Wartburg has two games against first-place contenders remaining, at least they are both at home.
Dave McHugh: While I like the WIAC and IIAC races, the USAC is intriguing. There is a three-way tie at the top between Greensboro, Christopher Newport, and Ferrum. Greensboro has beaten Christopher Newport once with one to play. Ferrum has split against Christopher Newport including a dominating 82-58 victory on Sunday and will take on Greensboro, who they already beat earlier this season, on Wednesday. The Pride are beatable, proven by the fact they lost to Ferrum and Christopher Newport in back-to-back games earlier this season, but have won 9 straight since. Who wins the regular and tournament titles is too hard to call.

Moving from 3 to 1

When George Fox head coach Scott Rueck accepted the top post at his alma mater Oregon State, he became the second coach this offseason to make the jump directly from Division III to Division I head coach. Vermont selected Lori Gear McBride of Colby to be its next women’s basketball coach in May.

The contemporary standard bearer for making that jump successfully is UW-Madison coach Bo Ryan. Ryan won four national titles with UW-Platteville and then moved to UW-Milwaukee before taking over the Badgers. At a lower profile Tony Shaver has done a nice job developing the William & Mary program since leaving Hampden-Sydney. Glenn Miller went from Conn College to Brown after leading the Camels to the Division III national semifinals. Miller did well at Brown, winning more games in his first six years there any previous Bears coach. Then he moved to Penn where he got fired after a 0-7 start to last season.

Here’s how some others have fared recently:

* Division I Bucknell likes them some D3 coaches. That’s understandable since Pat Flannery, who took over the Bison program in 1994, won 234 games there. Flannery arrived in Lewisburg after winning the national championship with Lebanon Valley that same year. So when Flannery retired in April 2008, Bucknell picked another Division III coach as his successor, Williams Dave Paulsen. Paulsen hasn’t taken the Bison to the same heights yet. They went 7-23 in Paulsen’s second season and 14-17 in the second.

* Speaking of the Patriot League, Stefanie Pemper left Bowdoin after a long, successful run in Maine for slightly warmer climes in 2008 when she became the head coach at Navy. The Mids have turned things around nicely under her, from 7-23 pre-Pemper in 2007-2008 to 16-15 post-Pemper in 2008-2009. Navy sustained that momentum last season by going 17-14.

* Around the same time as Paulsen’s and Pemper’s moves, Don Friday made the jump from Lycoming to St. Francis (Pa.). He took over a Red Flash program that had won just 18 games in three seasons. St. Francis kept slogging at that pace with a six win campaign in 2008-2009 but nearly doubled the win total last season by going 11-19.

This is far too small a sample to make any generalizations but it does highlight a couple things.

First, has any Division III coach made as big a jump as Rueck? Not to denigrate the Ivy League, Patriot League, American East or NEC, but they aren’t on the same level athletically as the Pac 12, um 10, er whatever. To give you a sense of scale how big the jump is, George Fox spent $81,909 during its undefeated championship run in 2008-2009 according to Federal government data. Oregon State spent five times as much – $419,465 – in a season where the Beavers went 20-12.

How will Rueck’s style translate at that level? Apparently he had the same question before taking the job. According to The Oregonian, Rueck called Oregon State football coach Mike Riley who also coached in the NWC at Linfield. Riley’s words encouraged Rueck to make the jump. An OSU assistant baseball coach who is also a former George Fox coach says, “”If you can coach at D-III you can coach anywhere.”

What happens to the teams these coaches leave behind? It’s a mixed bag. The Williams men reached last year’s national championship game post-Paulsen. The Bowdoin women aren’t as dominant as they used to be, but that may have more to do with GP Gromacki’s arrival at Amherst than Pemper’s departure. UW-Platteville and Hampden-Sydney aren’t as successful as they were under Ryan and Shaver, but they are competitive in really tough leagues. And Conn College has not fared well in the NESCAC since Miller left.

As for George Fox, having a roster with young talent, including freshman phenom Hannah Munger, certainly won’t hurt. Nor will it hurt that Puget Sound, the Bruins closest rival, will be going through a similar process after head coach Suzy Barcomb left for Division II. That’s the recipe for sustaining the success that Rueck established at George Fox over the short term. Choosing the right head coach to replace Rueck will go a long way toward sustaining it over the long term.

Part II: 10 questions for 2010

It’s a midseason review. It’s a rest-of-season preview. Stop – you’re both right! Actually, it’s the second part of our 10 burning questions for 2010. Here is Part I.

South: Whom would you take to win the ODAC – No. 4 Randolph-Macon, No. 6 Guilford, or the field?

Whom you take might depend on what we mean by “win the ODAC” since the Conference tournament has been unkind to favorites recently. Last year the top three seeds lost in their first tournament game and Randolph-Macon in particular has struggled, losing its tournament opener each year since 2006. This year’s Yellow Jacket squad is on a small list of undefeated teams with wins over DeSales, Wooster and Williams when each of them was ranked. They have five players scoring double-digits and leader Danny Jones is playing just 18.0 minutes per game. Guilford has the pedigree of last year’s run to the final four and Preseason All Americans Tyler Sanborn and Clay Henson who have combined for 36.7 points and 15.9 rebounds per game through Sunday. This is more than a two horse race, though. Eastern Mennonite is undefeated against Division III teams after rolling past Hampden-Sydney on Saturday. Virginia Wesleyan won the ODAC tournament last year and already beat Guilford 71-68 at home. And if you’re looking for a reason to take the field, the Marlins’ Stephen Fields gives you a great reason to do so. He leads the ODAC in scoring with 20.5 points per game.

My two cents: Guilford in the regular season and “the field” in the tournament.

Great Lakes: Who should be more worried about its slow start – John Carroll, Wooster or Hope?

Making this list is a blessing and a curse. It’s an acknowledgment of high expectations, either because of last year’s success (JCU), a talented young roster (Wooster) or a great tradition (Hope). But all three have to improve to meet those expectations. No. 7 John Carroll started 6-0 before losing four of five, including a surprising loss at home to Medaille (whom the Blue Streaks beat by 11 in last year’s NCAA tournament) and a 22-point thumping at the hooves of the Bethany Bison. Worse yet, all four loses are regional and two of them in conference. Wooster also has four loses (including one to John Carroll) but three came to Top 25 teams (add St. Thomas and Randolph-Macon). Winning one of those would’ve been nice for confidence but the Scots are doing fine in conference play at 3-0. Hope is an enigma (sound pretty philosophical, doesn’t it?) unless you have a good handle on the local NAIA teams on the schedule. If Olivet (5-6) could beat NAIA Spring Arbor at home, why didn’t Hope? The Flying Dutch are 7-4 over all with an impressive 22-point win over Wheaton (Ill.) and an early non-conference victory over archrival Calvin. Speaking of which, the Knights and Flying Dutch will meet again to start MIAA play this Wednesday, January 6.

My two cents: John Carroll since the OAC is a tougher road to hoe than the NCAC or the MIAA.

Midwest: Can the Illinois Wesleyan women run the table to the final four?

For the third straight year, the school hosting the women’s final four is also a strong contender to play for a national championship on its own floor. Hope had two cracks and fell one game short at Howard Payne in 2008 and against George Fox at Thomas More in 2009. The Titans had disappointment of their own in the 2009 tournament, seeing their season – undefeated and otherwise – end against Washington U last March. IWU exercised those ghosts in November but, given the importance of geographic proximity in the national tournament and the possibility for the Bears to pick up some loses in UAA play, Wash U. and IWU could meet again this year. IWU has the two main ingredients of recent national champions – a star player who can carry the team (Christina Solari) and a deep roster so she won’t have to do that very often. The biggest obstacle to another perfect regular season is Carthage, which is also undefeated against Division III. Circle the matchups between the Titans and Lady Reds (in Bloomington this Saturday and in Kenosha on January 30th) as the two biggest tests.

My two cents: The Titans can and they will.

West: What are George Fox’s chances to repeat?

George Fox has a strikingly similar poll position this season as it did last season. In January 2009 the Bruins were undefeated but slotted at No. 14. This year they are No. 16 with an 8-2 record and losses to Cal Lutheran (7-2) and NAIA Lewis-Clark State, which is 5-0 against NWC teams. If nothing else, this shows the respect that the pollsters have for the Bruins – 8-2 would have probably left them unranked a season ago. George Fox got off to a great start, defeating Puget Sound 65-62 in overtime on Saturday. The Loggers were picked second in the NWC preseason coaches poll. Two key pieces of last year’s championship, center and defensive anchor Kristen Shielee and national freshman of the year Sage Indendi, are gone. Six-foot-five freshman Hannah Munger is now the Bruins center, replacing Breezy Rinehart-Young in the starting lineup. Munger has 28 blocks in the last six games, which is a good sign. Indendi’s departure puts more pressure on fellow former fab frosh Keisha Gordon who has boosted her scoring output from 12.4 to 15.8 points per game so far. The Bruins aren’t the obvious pick to win the national championship, but they weren’t last year either.

My two cents: The Bruins will miss Shielee’s calming presence but don’t count them out.

Multi: Can a team from a “non-power conference” make a run to the Final Four?

Defining the power conferences in Division III is tough, so let’s use the following very rough rule of thumb – any conference that doesn’t have at least four tournament wins combined in the last three years is a non-power conference. On the women’s side, that kind of run is unlikely. The gap between the top teams in the tournament and the rest often translates into double-digit margins of victory for the former group. And the distribution of the really good teams is pretty even. As for the men, this question presumes the regional approach to bracketing continues. There have been some very surprising results in the middle of the country (Medaille over JCU; Northwestern (Minn.) over St. Norbert). But it’s tough to envision a team from the AMCC, UMAC or NathCON stringing together four consecutive big upsets. But in the East, Atlantic or Mid-Atlantic, it’s another story. Maybe the CSAC, Empire 8, Liberty League or Landmark champion gets hot at the right time and rides that all the way to Salem.

My two cents: Depends on what kind of bracket we get on the men’s side.

Hope 09: Whodda thunk?

There are too many great stories from the 2008 – 2009 women’s Division III basketball season to summarize them all in one post. Doubtless there are many we never uncovered the past four months, despite our efforts. But the one that will define the year from a national perspective is George Fox’s incredible, undefeated run to the national championship.

By now, you’ve heard the story several times already. The Bruins graduated all five starters and added 10 first year players to a trio of juniors and senior Kristen Shielee whose play before this season was pretty non-descript. George Fox rumbled through the regular season but, in a year in which NWC observers said the conference was a little down, it was tough for some of us east coasters to determine exactly how good the Bruins were until the NCAA tournament began. Then they cruised by Chapman, rolled past Oglethorpe, handled Hope, took care of The College of New Jersey and withstood Washington U. in a run that touched most of Division III’s regions. And so George Fox becomes just the fifth program to win a Division III women’s national championship without a loss.

Given the make-up of the George Fox roster and their preseason placement (fifth in the NWC poll), the Bruins’ run was certainly unexpected. It’s even more unlikely if you consider where Kristen Shielee was entering the off season at this point last year. The quiet giant who anchored the stingy 2-3 zone defense and scored the biggest baskets of the year late in Saturday’s championship wasn’t even a lock to return for her senior season, as we learned in the retrospective posted below.

Other than returners Elise Kuenzi, BB Gardner and Lindsay Keener, the other contributors to the title team were also hidden in unknown places at this point last year. Sage Indendi, D3hoops.com Rookie of the Year, was playing high school ball in Livingston, Mont. and looking for a college home. She told us about her journey to Oregon and what she wants to do for an encore in the podcast below.

Is it too early to look ahead to next season since this one only ended a couple hours ago? If we do, we see a George Fox team that returns four starters, another exceptionally deep Hope team, and an Amherst squad with most of the big contributors back. And maybe somewhere out there, there’s a couple role players who are ready to take a much larger role, a couple high school seniors who haven’t even picked a college yet and a team that will have us scratching our heads with a smile on our face at this point next season.

More championship coverage:

Game story (Greg Chandler, MIAA)
D3hoops.com: Magicial run was not foretold
Holland (MI) Sentinel (Dan D’Addona): From cubs to champs – Young George Fox wins Division III national championship (with photo gallery)
Holland (MI) Sentinel (Alan Babbitt): Long, unlikely road for tournament MVP
The Oregonian (Lindsay Schnell): George Fox women win title, go undefeated
Photo gallery (The Oregonian)
St. Louis Post Dispatch (Alan Babbitt): Bears come up short in final
Holland (MI) Sentinel (Alan Babbitt): Hope defeated by best…again

More George Fox coverage:

D3hoops podcast: Rejector, Rookies, Rueck
Around the Nation: George Fox hunting again
Holland Sentinel (Alan Babbitt): Alaska family reels in some hoops

Rejector, Rookies and Rueck

When George Fox’s lone senior Kristen Shielee is asked what she thought upon first meeting her team’s 10 first year players, she doesn’t hesitate: “They’re loud,” she says with a smile. By contrast Shielee seems quiet, though her play speaks volume. The recently named West Region Player of the Year is the 6-foot-4 anchor for the Bruins’ stingy zone defense and her 10 blocks thwarted Hope in the sectional finals. And, along with youthful exuberance, the freshmen bring a ton of talent that has fueled this unexpected, undefeated run to the national semifinals. We caught up Shielee, Coach Scott Rueck and first year guard Keisha Gordon after the Bruins’ sectional final victory.