|After a three-year journey, Hope celebrates winning the NCAA Division III women’s basketball national championship.
Photo by Dan Hunter, d3photography.com
By Gordon Mann
The best Division III basketball seasons are like a good movie.
You meet the characters in the first few weeks when the preseason Top 25 and All-Americans announced.
The storyline is established with a handful of non-conference games between teams expected to make deep Tournament runs. The plot thickens during conference play as teams claim their spots at the top of their standings. And then, in the third act, the tension builds through conference tournaments, the NCAA Tournament bracket release, and three weekends of games culminating in a national champion.
Whoever that champion is, there is closure, both to the season, and the college basketball careers of hundreds of student athletes who have committed such a large part of their lives to this sport.
The last two seasons have felt like a movie without an ending, with no resolution to the plot and no closure.
The 2020 Tournament was cancelled within hours of the sectional semifinal games tipping off, leaving 16 teams with a season suddenly ended amid a world turned upside down by a worldwide pandemic.
The 2021 season felt disjointed from the beginning, with several programs not taking the court at all and virtually no crossover games between conferences. Instead of feeling like a movie, that season felt more like a series of YouTube clips, only connected by placement in the same playlist
On February 3, 2021, Hope defeated Trine 61-52 in what could’ve been a preview of a national championship game, had there been one. While the Flying Dutch and Thunder were warming up, the NCAA announced that there would not be a 2021 Division III basketball tournament because an insufficient number of teams participated to hold the championship.
Hope Head Coach Brian Morehouse had to congratulate his team on a big win and tell them they would not get a chance to play for a title. “I’m mad and I’m sad,” Morehouse said into his cell phone camera during the postgame press conference. “I just hurt for our players.”
Morehouse said that, of all the reasons to hurt, there was the pain of being denied closure. Whether his team was really the best in the country was almost beside the point. They would never know.
Now they do.
Hope entered this season as it finished the last two, with the No. 1 ranking and expectations that it would play for a national championship in Pittsburgh. The Flying Dutch brought back Kenedy Schoonveld, Olivia Voskuil and Sydney Muller as “super seniors” who used the NCAA’s COVID-19 waiver to gain an additional year of eligibility. They also had enough depth that the Flying Dutch’s second unit probably would’ve been a Top 25 team.
The season played out largely to script.
Hope tore through the season, save for one loss to MIAA rival Trine. The 70-62 loss at home to the Thunder added some drama to what was otherwise starting to feel inevitable, and it also showed how good Trine is.
The NCAA Tournament was a showcase of what made Hope unbeatable. The Flying Dutch scored points by the truckload in their first four games and were on pace to break the Tournament scoring record entering the national semifinals.
Hope absorbed big games from Millikin All-American Elyce Knudsen in the Round of 16 and NYU Rookie of the Year Belle Pellecchia in the Round of 8. The Flying Dutch had depth and defense to a degree that other teams could not overcome.
The national semifinals brought yet another matchup with Trine and another hard-fought win over the Thunder. Kenedy Schoonveld scored 15 points and was part of a defensive effort that held Trine All-American Tara Bieniewicz to three points, and the Flying Dutch prevailed 57-52.
The national championship looked like it would be another tightly contested, low-scoring affair when Hope and UW-Whitewater entered the halftime locker room tied at 34. During the first half, UW-Whitewater worked the ball down low to its talented forwards, Johanna Taylor and Aleah Grundahl and they posted 17 points and nine rebounds.
In the second half, the Flying Dutch ratcheted up the defensive intensity, bringing their waves of long, strong defenders onto the perimeter to suffocate the Whitewater guards and choking off the passing lanes. Grundahl and Taylor couldn’t dominate the second half because the Warhawks couldn’t get them the ball. They had five shots combined in the second half, and just one in the fourth quarter.
“The difference between Hope and most teams that you face is that they have so much length,” said UW-Whitewater coach Keri Carollo after the game. “It’s not just that they are really aggressive and give great pressure. It’s that they have the size and they have the ability to close up a lot of the gaps that you would normally see against most teams. ”
Meanwhile Hope’s depth did the damage on the offensive side. Schoonveld had an off night, scoring five points on 2-for-11 shooting. But Ella McKinney came off the bench and scored a career-high 21 points and Sydney Muller demonstrated the offensive skills that made her Hope’s top scorer before an ACL injury ended her 2020 season. Muller scored 18 points and claimed the Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award.
Hope defeated UW-Whitewater 71-58 and the Flying Dutch are national champions. For real. No what ifs.
There is closure.
How does it feel, Coach Morehouse?
“Closure. It feels really, really, really good. It feels better than I thought it was going to feel and it makes you wonder what the two years ago could’ve been because we’ve been pretty for the last three years. And we haven’t been able to validate them. Maybe we would’ve won three in a row. But we don’t have any control over that. We controlled what we could control today.
That’s really all we wanted coming into this season. We wanted a chance and we talked about it from Day 1. We just want a chance to validate and to close out a season, for good or for bad. We just want closure. ”
That is what the 2021-22 season provided, not just for Hope, but hopefully also for the other programs and players whose 2020 Tournament runs were ended by COVID. The emotional weight of closure was evident when Amherst and Trine stood on the court after their national semifinal losses, visibly shaken that a three-year journey full of ups and downs had finally come to an end.
Every full season ends with 63 teams wiping tears from their eyes, and rightly noting that the final loss does not define their journey, while the 64th team revels in a national championship. The emotions seemed to burn brighter this season.
After two years of waiting, seasons scheduled and not played, games without fans and players in surgical masks, after all the hurt and disappointment, perhaps it’s fitting – maybe even script-worthy – that the last team left is Hope.