BW Women’s Team Makes March Sweet in Berea
By: Matthew Florjancic, Correspondent
BEREA---Last year, the Baldwin Wallace University women’s basketball team won the Ohio Athletic Conference Tournament and hosted Denison University in the first round of the NCAA Division III National Tournament. After being upset by The Big Red, the Yellow Jackets experienced two more losses.
Freshmen guards Cara Shiplett and Ashley Westenbarger departed for Malone College and the University of Findlay, respectively. Losing players is nothing new at any level. However, their exits from Berea left 16-year head coach Cheri Harrer with two holes in the starting line-up.
Shiplett, the 2005 Ohio Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year, led the Yellow Jackets in scoring and rebounding with 10.7 points and five boards per game. Westenbarger, who tallied 6.7 points a game, was a 44.7 percent shooter from behind the three-point line.
So, how could BW endure this adversity and still make the NCAA Division III “Sweet 16” in 2006? Coach Harrer recruited another stellar freshman class, in addition to bringing back a solid nucleus of experienced veterans, which has been her recipe for success.
“Our coaching staff did think it would be a bit of a rebuilding year,” Harrer said after practice on Monday. “You never really replace people; you find a different way to get the job done. We stayed with our same basic philosophies, but tweaked them to take advantage of our new strengths and weaknesses.”
One definite strength for this team is their depth of talent. Nine players on the roster have played in all 30 games for the Yellow Jackets, who enter the “Sweet 16” with a 26-4 overall mark. Another athlete on the squad has seen action in 29 of the 30 games.
Once again, Harrer found a freshman who could step up and be productive right away for the Jackets. Guard Amanda Mondrach, who earned OAC Freshman of the Year honors for her play, is second on the team in scoring, averaging 10.2 points per game. She has led the team in scoring in eight contests this season, including a career-high 22 points in a 77-59 drumming of OAC rival Otterbein College.
Mondrach believes the team is performing at a high level because of the unselfish nature of the players.
“Chemistry is probably one of the biggest reasons we’re so successful,” Mondrach said. “Everyone has the same vision and knows what it takes to get the job done. It never matters who’s in the game with whom because we’re all on the same page and constantly feeding off of each other.”
Another bright spot for BW has been the play of the veterans. Senior All-OAC and Academic All-District IV point guard Nikki Altenweg leads the team in scoring with 10.7 points a contest. As the floor general, Altenweg’s main job is to command the offense and defense. She has handed out 85 assists and collected 75 steals.
Altenweg is aware of what BW needs to do in order to advance in the NCAA Tournament. She also knows that last year’s loss to Denison is a motivating factor for her teammates.
“We need to attack Williams on both ends of the floor and set the tempo for the game early in order to get off to a good start and keep the momentum with us for the rest of the game,” stated Altenweg, who is one of the two captains for this year’s Yellow Jacket team. “We had talent and were capable of going further than the first round [last year].”
“Unfortunately, we played one of our worst games of the year,” she added. “This year’s team is much more focused, talented and willing to go the distance. Making it to the “Sweet 16” is amazing and I just hope we can keep going!”
Altenweg’s fellow Academic All-OAC teammate, junior Steffani Jaworski, knew the coaching staff would help reload an already rich arsenal of talent. She, along with the rest of her teammates, feels they could advance in the National Tournament.
“Coach [Harrer] does a great job recruiting and looking for people who will progress and fit into our program well,” Jaworski stated. “All we need to do is play ‘BW Basketball!’ We have a lot of talent on this team and when everything is working together, it is scary.”
“We just need to go in and worry about ourselves and most importantly, each possession individually,” Jaworski added.
In OAC regular season action this year, BW went 17-1, en route to an outright conference title. It is also the tenth straight campaign that Coach Harrer has led her squad to 20 or more victories in a season.
In postseason play, BW has made nine of the last 11 NCAA Division III Tournaments. They have an 8-8 record in 16 tournament games. Last weekend, BW defeated Oswego (N.Y.) State University and William Smith (N.Y.) College to win the NCAA Division III East Regional Championship.
Standing in the way of an “Elite Eight” appearance are the Williams (Mass.) College Ephs. The Ephs, who are 23-5 overall in 2005-06, will battle BW in the “Sweet 16” of the NCAA Division III National Tournament on Friday night at 5:00PM in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
The winner advances to the “Elite Eight” where they will play the winner of the Rochester/Scranton game at 7:00PM on Saturday night. Earlier this year, BW faced both Rochester and Scranton. BW started the season with a championship in the University of Rochester Tournament, where they beat the Rochester Yellowjackets 53-39. In December, the Yellow Jackets traveled to Las Vegas, Nevada, for their holiday tournament. While in “Sin City,” BW lost to Scranton 59-49.
Harrer also thinks the leadership factor is a big reason why they are playing so deep in the tournament.
“Last year’s NCAA Tournament game may have been the low point in our program for several years,” Harrer said. “At our organizational meeting this year, Jenn Neal (BW’s starting center and career-leader in blocked shots) asked if she could speak. She talked to her teammates about not making any plans for Spring Break.”
“Our coaching staff knew at that point, we could have a great year,” Harrer added. “It’s been a while since we’ve been in the “Sweet 16,” so it’s very special and gratifying to be back there. For a while, I was thinking we may never get past the first game again!”
This BW team is different from squads of the past. They play every possession and game like it was their last. The cover of the media guide explains the team mentality well.
“Success is a journey, not a destination, one play at a time.”
If the past few games are any indication, the journey might lead all the way to the top of NCAA Division III Women’s Basketball.