When the Hopkins women's basketball players first ran onto the practice court last November, they wore T-shirts with this season's team motto emblazoned on the back: One Way or Another. Whatever it took to win the Centennial Conference championship and contend for the NCAA Division III title, that's what they were going to do.
Twenty-five games later, and at press time about to play in the conference championship game, the Lady Jays have earned their place among the nation's elite teams. Going into Saturday's championship against Muhlenberg College, the Jays were 22-3 and ranked eighth in the country. At the end of this week, the NCAA national tournament gets under way, and Hopkins knows that if it plays up to its potential and gets a few breaks, it could go beyond last season's trip to the quarterfinal round.
Says head coach Nancy Blank, "We've had to work for everything we've gotten this year. A lot of people on the outside would look at our scores and say, 'They've had an easy road.' But we have worked twice as hard this year as last."
The team has been led by senior co-captains Julie Anderson and Angie Arnold, best friends who are among the most accomplished players ever to take the floor at Hopkins. Between them, they've rewritten the university's record books in women's basketball. Anderson is the all-time leading scorer and rebounder, and only the eighth player in NCAA Division III history to amass more than 1,300 rebounds in a career. Arnold is Hopkins' all-time assist leader and second in career scoring; was just named Centennial Conference Player of the Year; and has been nominated for the Francis Pomeroy Naismith Award, which goes to the country's best player 5 feet 6 inches and under (she just makes the cut-off on height). Both have been nominated for All-American honors and NCAA postgraduate scholarships.
Blank has been pleased by the performance of her younger players, who are crucial on a team with only two seniors. "The sophomore class is tremendous, and we have juniors who are beginning to step up," Blank says. She praises junior Joy Vaccaro; sophomores Kelly Hamilton and Marjahna Segers; and freshmen Erin Perry and Kristi Nelson.
What has not pleased the coach is this team's inconsistency. "We haven't found a personality yet. We've been a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde. We're not an emotional team, and it takes us a long time to feel the game." Last Wednesday's conference semifinal contest against Ursinus College was a case in point. The Jays came out jittery, turning the ball over and missing easy shots. In the first half, they were stuck on five points for what seemed like hours. Then, as if someone had pushed a button, they ran off 25 straight points, completely shutting down Ursinus for more than 13 minutes, en route to a 75-38 victory that was not nearly as easy as the lopsided score would suggest.
In January, the Jays went into what Blank calls a "mini-skid." The players were tired, physically and mentally. They began to run up big leads, then lose their focus and let their opponents come back. Says Blank, "We've been content sometimes to sit on a lead this year, and if you do that against a decent team, they'll try to creep back in. I want to see more of that mental toughness we need, so that when we get a lead on somebody, we put them away."
Blank saw what was happening as the season progressed, and tried to intervene. "I pulled out every motivational speech I have, including some that they've heard before. Same song, other words."
Looking back, Blank cites two games that shook up the Jays. First was a January contest at Gettysburg College that Blank describes as "the most physical beating of our lives." Hopkins won the game, but not before Gettysburg knocked them around. Hamilton, a gritty forward, took a vicious elbow to the eye. "Her eye swelled shut," Blank recalls. "If she'd been a boxer, they'd have cut the thing. It took four days for it to open up. We got pounded, but that helped us, I think. I hope we're a little tougher mentally."
The other game, two weeks ago, was a 67-53 loss to Western Maryland College, a defeat that has, for the moment, cost Hopkins the important top spot in the NCAA tournament regional seedings.
"I think that was a wake-up call," the coach says. "Western Maryland was a team that did not play us well here at home earlier in the season, and no matter what we said as a coaching staff, human nature prevailed. It was hard for our players to respect them in the manner that they deserved. They're a very talented team and they had everything on the line. Everybody wants a piece of you when you're at the top of the conference. It was good for us to have to step back and say, 'We're not unbeatable. We're not bigger than life.' It cleared our heads. Now I think we're back on track. Our practices have been sharp. Right now, I feel that this team has decided that we've worked too hard to have anybody take this away."
In postseason play, much rides on whether a team has made it through its schedule without serious injury. "We're healthier now than we've been in the last four weeks, across the board," Blank says. "[Starting sophomore guard] Leslie Ritter was dragging around a bad leg for about six weeks, but now she's back, and not a bit too soon."
As the team prepares for its fourth straight NCAA tournament appearance, Blank admits that she's exhausted. But she adds, "I don't want it to end. I'm too much of a competitor for that. And I want it to go on for the seniors, Julie and Angie. When someone sticks with your program and contributes as much as these two have, you just want them to get everything they can." One way or another.