Late on a Wednesday afternoon the
Johns Hopkins women's
basketball team is firing jump shots in the Newton H. White Jr. Athletic Center. This
is one of the team's first formal practices, and it sounds like
it. Errant shots clang off the rims
and thunk off the backboards. Except in one corner of the gym.
Seniors Julie Anderson, a forward, and Angie Arnold, a guard, have paired off, as usual, and the only sound coming from them is the distinctive thwup of a basketball brushing the cords on a perfect downward trajectory through the hoop. Feeding each other the ball, they dart around the court and make shot after shot. As their teammates steal glances at them, they sink 14 in a row.
Anderson and Arnold are co-captains, All-Americans, and two of the best basketball players ever to play for Hopkins. Between them, they already are in the top five in 14 of 15 career statistical categories for the school, and by the end of this season will probably have set records in a dozen of them. At the end of her junior year, Anderson was already the all-time leading scorer in Hopkins women's basketball history, with Arnold third and closing fast.
Coach Nancy Blank watches them and marvels. "Sometimes," she says, "I have to remind myself that I'm the coach, not a fan."
No one has won more women's basketball games at Hopkins than Coach Blank. Eight of her 11 teams have posted winning records. Before her arrival in 1986, the women's team had compiled an uninspiring record of 41 wins and 136 losses, once going down by the score of 113-42, and on another occasion scoring only 16 points in an entire game. For the last three seasons, the Hopkins women have qualified to play in the NCAA Division III national championship tournament. Last year's team was 25-5 and advanced to the national quarterfinals. Coming into this season, the women had won 67 of their last 87 games.
They are among the best in the country, but hardly anyone seems to notice. Their first-round NCAA tournament game last year was played at Homewood. Perhaps 200 people showed up to watch, and some of them were there to cheer for Cabrini College. Attendance at regular-season games tends to be in the high two figures. Whatever these women play for, it's not fame.
THE PLAYERS TRY NOT TO TALK about it, but they know they could
contend for the national championship next month. Since their
first informal scrimmage last September, they have been working
toward it on the practice court, in the weight room, and on long
runs. They require direction but not motivation. Says Blank,
"This team has a fire that, as a coach, I would not be able to
She pushes them hard anyway, emphasizing conditioning, speed, and tenacious defense. If you are an opponent, this year's team will aim to press you into mistakes and then run you out of the building. On the practice court, the women weave in an offensive drill, whipping the ball around until it's in the hands of someone who has created enough space between herself and a defender to do some damage. There's a lot to watch, and a host of talented players, but an observer soon notices that wherever the ball comes down, either Anderson or Arnold usually manages to be there.
How they get there is strikingly different. Arnold is muscular and scrappy. As a freshman, she entered the starting lineup on the second day of practice and has never left. Blank states flatly that she has never coached a better point guard. If you watch Arnold in action, you are always aware of her fighting for position. Her best friend Anderson seems to glide to the ball from nowhere. You don't even know she's coming--she's just suddenly there. She has lived in Delaware, Pennsylvania, Brazil, and Korea. She was a high school volleyball star, recruited by Division I schools like Villanova and Yale, but she chose to play basketball at Hopkins instead. "I have played sports every day of my life since I was 5," she says. "I thought it was time to do other things. I knew basketball wouldn't be my whole life at Hopkins."
Anderson, who is tall and fair, is a public health major who
tends to be emotional on the court. After missing a shot, she
will sometimes exclaim, "God help me!" During a game Arnold, the
floor general, will calm her down. The shorter, dark-haired
Arnold is majoring in chemical engineering, and has a fittingly
analytical approach to the game. They met as high school players
on opposing teams, became close friends, and agreed to attend
Hopkins together. On the court, they often seem to function as
one mind, instinctively sensing what the other is about to do.
Blank knows they could have played Division I basketball. "They
were steals for us," she says.
THROUGHOUT LAST FALL, the players got together on their own twice a week for informal "captains' practice," directed by Anderson and Arnold. They lifted weights three times a week, and hit the streets for three-mile runs. Formal drills began in November, with practices six days a week. By the evening of the first game, against Swarthmore, the players were itching to get on with it. Enough line drills, enough three-on-three, enough strength training. It was time to play some ball.
Five minutes before tip-off, there was no need for a crowd estimate, because you could literally count the crowd: 51 spectators, including several toddlers. The players claim not to care. Says Anderson, "We play for ourselves. Hopkins is an academic school. That's why I came here. I didn't want an athletic school." But it's hard to believe they wouldn't enjoy a thousand screaming fans. By game-time on this evening, they had perhaps a hundred.
Anderson won the opening jump ball, and the Jays were off and
running. Swarthmore concentrated on the two All-Americans,
double-teaming Arnold as she brought the ball down the court, but
within five minutes sophomore guard Leslie Ritter had hit two
three-point shots. Arnold shrugged off an elbow to the nose that
knocked her flat, solved the Swarthmore defense, and fed Anderson
for three quick baskets. After nine minutes, Hopkins was up 18-6,
and Swarthmore could see this was going to be a long night.|
Blank prowled the sideline, clutching a few tightly rolled papers. She screamed at her players to be more aggressive on the offensive boards, and patted their shoulders when they came off the court. They began to press on defense, forcing their opponents into mistakes. The score mounted: 24-6, 30-10, 38-12. Hopkins was too quick and too deep for Swarthmore to catch. Whenever the visitors temporarily shut down Anderson or Arnold, Ritter would kill them from outside, or Marjahna Segers, a bulky sophomore center with surprising agility, would muscle in for short jumpers.
Midway through the second half, a junior guard named Joy Vaccaro stripped a Swarthmore player of the ball and launched a fast break. She passed the ball to Anderson, who had a free lane for an easy lay-up. But Anderson generously passed back to her teammate--Vaccaro made the steal, so Vaccaro got the basket. It's a team game.
When the score reached 69-28, Blank gave her reserves a chance to play. All the freshmen appeared in their first college basketball game. One of them, Molly Malloy, lofted a jumper. The instant the ball left Malloy's hand, Segers, watching from the bench, said, "That's money!" As predicted, the ball dropped through the hoop, dead solid perfect. Hopkins won, 77-38. Sophomore forward Kelly Hamilton playfully leapt into Segers's arms. The season was under way at last.
TO WIN A NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP in March takes an improbable combination of talent, determination, work, and good fortune. Throughout a long, four-month season, everyone has to concentrate, everyone has to stay healthy, and now and then a bounce has to go your way. But when the entire starting lineup from a national quarterfinalist team returns for one more season, they know what the expectations are. They also know all the things that can go wrong. "It's exciting," Arnold says, considering the possibilities. "But it's just overwhelming."
After the Swarthmore game, Hopkins blitzed the first part of its schedule--86-49 over Case Western, 93-32 over Bryn Mawr, 74-55 over Brandeis. Not that anyone noticed. Official attendance for the rout of Bryn Mawr was 41. Sixty-seven saw the Case Western game, which was, at least, two more than watched the Hopkins men's game on the same day.
The first real test figured to be New York University, which was next up on the schedule. NYU is the defending national champion, and with four starters returning from that elite squad, it ranked first in the country in some preseason polls. They were undefeated and had the preseason Division III player-of-the-year, Marsha Harris. There would be later tough games on the Jays' schedule--against Emory, Washington University, Scranton, Western Maryland--but if Hopkins meant to make a serious run at the national title, NYU was the sort of elite team it would have to beat.
The Violets clearly were taking the game seriously, bringing along their cheerleaders and pep band. Last season, NYU had embarrassed Hopkins, 81-48. This year, it was soon apparent that Anderson, Arnold, and their teammates had not forgotten. The Jays played the game about as well as it can be played, demolishing the defending champions, 64-33. During one 11-minute stretch, they ran off 24 points to NYU's 2. "I think they had a score to settle," Blank said later.
Except for publishing the final stats, the next morning's Baltimore Sun ignored the game. Blank says, "In my earlier years, I'd have liked some recognition for turning the program around. But now I don't worry about it." If you press them, the players will admit that they'd enjoy more attention, but they don't complain. They know they're good, and they play for the sheer joy of doing what they do so well. If you've ever played the game yourself, you know that you'd trade places with them in a minute.
Dale Keiger is a senior writer at Johns Hopkins Magazine.
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