“If you told us freshman year that we’d play in a national final four we would have all thought you were crazy,” said Liz Tecca, senior, of the Goshen College women’s basketball team.
Well, crazy it is.
This past week at the Division II NAIA Women’s National Championships in Sioux City, Iowa, the Goshen College women’s basketball team pieced together a magical tournament run that will be remembered forever.
After a 15-3 campaign through the conference regular season, the Maple Leafs earned a berth in the Division II NAIA Women’s National Championships as a five-seed in the Liston Bracket, one of the four sub-brackets leading to the “Fab Four.” After a stunning run from the original 32 teams down to being one of the “Fab Four,” the 2016 season ends with a program-best record of 27-9.
In the first round Goshen matched up against the four-seed Concordia University of Nebraska, and used a late three-point dagger by Lynnia Noel, junior, to win 85-82, becoming the first Goshen team of any sport to win in a national tournament. In a tight battle with 13 ties and 22 lead-changes, the Leafs used double-digit scoring performances from Gabby Williams, junior, (19), Tyra Carver, senior, (17), Keshia Ward, senior, (14), and Noel (13) to pull off the first of many victories throughout the tournament.
With history already made, the Leafs were on to the second round, and met the one-seed, the St. Xavier Cougars. With the jitters out of their system, the Maple Leafs turned in a stellar performance to defeat the Cougars handedly, 84-66. Goshen used a combination of stifling defense and hot shooting to hold the Cougars to shooting just 31.4 percent from the field to Goshen’s 42.9 percent. Tecca posted her second career double-double by scoring 13 points and pulling down 10 rebounds to lead the overall attack. Jo’Mani Thomas, senior, and Carver both posted high scoring numbers, with Thomas pacing the Leaf’s with 19 and Carver with 18. Noel also reached double figures with 12.
With the win the women advanced to the quarterfinals against the 10th-ranked overall and three-seed Dakota Wesleyan University Tigers. The Maple Leafs led the contest for 37 of 40 minutes to tame the Tigers by a score of 89-71, earning them a trip to the “Fab Four.” Goshen’s spread attack included five players scoring in double figures, led by a Thomas double-double of 18 points and 11 rebounds, and also 17 points and a team-high four assists from Sophia Sears, junior.
With a huge turnout from the student body and Goshen community cheering on the ladies at the Goshen College Roman Gingerich Recreation-Fitness Center, the women once again took the court as the underdog, this time against the third-ranked and one-seed out of the Duer Bracket, the Southern Oregon University Raiders. The Raiders started off with a 10-0 run early in the first quarter and never looked back, defeating the Leafs 84-69. Williams’ 21-point and 10-rebound double-double wasn’t enough, as the magical run was cut short.
“This tournament run is a shot in the arm and just a great example for all of our student-athletes for what is possible with hard work,” said Josh Gleason, the Goshen College athletic director. “I think it will spark much more success in the coming years.”
This group of women had something special. They overcame adversity and turned the losing culture of the past around, peaking at the right time and riding the leadership of upperclassmen who were hungry for more. A hunger to be remembered. A hunger to ignite the GC community. A hunger to reverse the culture and mindset of all.
“What an incredible story they have written for others to follow,” said head coach Stephanie Miller. ““This year’s spark that ignited this run of success has come from a combination of mental toughness that has developed from how far we had to climb through the mud to get to the other side. These girls simply wouldn’t let anything get in the way of reaching their goals, and it has been a very special group to coach for me. This entire team of young women has proven that continual commitment, supporting one another, and a lot of toughness and perseverance CAN be enough to take you wherever you want to go in life.”
Throughout the entire season and tournament run one thing stayed constant; community support. “We were overwhelmed by the support of the broader Goshen College community. I have said that from day one, that success is not possible without every part of the team and campus playing their role,” said Gleason. “That is what One Leaf is all about.”
Tecca also expressed her gratitude and excitement of how far the program has come in her four years in a Maple Leaf uniform, saying, “This final run has just reinforced the old saying that hard work pays off. Through the ups and downs of my career here I’ve experienced more love and support than I ever thought possible. I wouldn’t have wanted to go through this journey anywhere else or with anyone else.”
A team that just four years ago only won three games accomplished something to be proud of, something to be remembered, and something that ignited an entire college community.