The Messiah Women's Basketball team finished an amazing season last weekend. Unfortunately they were not able to beat Howard Payne in the National Championship game, but we were all just so proud and impressed with how far the girls were able to go. They played well and carried themselves in a very classy way. The Messiah SID (Cory Furman) wrote an amazing article that sums up the team and the season very well (see article included below).
Nikki also earned national honors by being named to the WBCA and State Farm Honor NCAA Division III State Farm Coaches' All-America Team. Way to go Nik!
D3Hoops.com took some great pictures at the championship game and you can check them out or purchase them here.
Holland, MI — So this is where it ends.
No, that’s not right.
This is simply where my leg of the journey concludes.
I arrived at Messiah in late November, accepting a position as assistant athletics director unsure of what the immediate future would hold. Professionally, I had much to tend to, but informally, people around my office kept talking about the women’s basketball team.
They have a chance to do something special.
This could be their year.
The pieces are in place.
With these nuggets of information repeatedly cast my way, I watched. And with each passing game, I became more enthralled in what was clearly proof that the early murmurings were true.
For reasons on a variety of levels, the 2007-2008 Messiah College women’s basketball team was, in fact, very special.
Of course, by now, we all know the numbers: The program’s second-ever trip to the Final Four and national championship game. A school-record 30 wins. A senior class that compiled a remarkable 107-13 overall record during their time in uniform.
But aside from those feats, I believe this year’s team provided a glimpse into something that head coach Mike Miller said on more than one occasion during the remarkable run into the post-season.
“The things that are happening with this team, the inner things people from the outside don’t see. . .that’s why we’re still playing,” he would say.
“This is an absolutely incredible group of young women,” he would repeat.
Somehow, those comments often got lost in the reporting of such grandiose facts, such as senior Nikki Lobach scoring 32 of Messiah’s 54 total points in the MAC Commonwealth Tournament Championship over Lebanon Valley College.
But for this newcomer, Miller’s sentiments kept banging around in my head.
And, as the team continued to go deeper into the post-season, pristine examples of what Miller was talking about began to surface on an almost daily basis.
There was junior Ashley Brooks, whose post-game tears of joy following the team’s 73-61 comeback win over University of Rochester in the ‘Sweet 16’ were well-documented on this website.
What was not written about, however, was the nearly instant stoppage of emotions when Brooks went to shake hands with Rochester’s players afterward.
Out of respect for her opponent — which had just played its last game of the season — Brooks forcibly composed herself before heading to the handshake line.
She teased me for writing about her display in the post-game recap.
“I can guarantee you I’ll be bawling after every game we win from here on out, because it means so much to me.”
That sentiment was echoed throughout the Final Four weekend, as Messiah’s players seemed to always have a smile on their face and a willing heart for any and all to see.
“We don’t just want to win basketball games, but we want to be a witness for the other teams here and their fans,” Brooks told me while in Michigan. “We want to do anything we can to be a light for Jesus Christ.”
Such was the case following the national championship game, where the team held an impromptu Easter service, complete with songs of praise and worship — led by senior Lauren Schurr and family — while Tom Kalb, father of junior guard Katie Kalb, preached a brief sermon.
It was not the type of thing you’d expect from a group that just dropped a heartbreaking loss in the NCAA National Championship. But again, neither was the majority of how the team conducted itself.
Lobach may have suffered a fractured left thumb at the end of Messiah’s game against Oglethorpe University in Friday night’s national semi-final.
You wouldn’t have known it from her reaction, however. Lobach simply signaled to the bench that she needed a sub, accepted high fives from her teammates and walked quickly to the end of the bench where athletic trainer Wendy Cheesman was waiting.
It was only after she was out of the view of her teammates that she revealed the type of pain she was in.
She then played the entire national championship game with her left thumb heavily wrapped and never uttered a word about it.
Perhaps the biggest testament to this group’s special nature came in the manner they conducted themselves to the media, continually flooring me with their maturity and balance.
During Friday’s post-game press conference, junior Sal Shani was asked to describe how she felt her team had reached the national championship game.
I believe most in the room expected an answer having to deal with zone defenses, offensive strategies or game preparation.
Shani’s response was down another avenue entirely.
“Our key has been prayer,” she said plainly. “We pray a lot not to win, but for us to do our absolute best and honor God. It helps us keep our composure. That, and how we have come together as a team. We’re not only teammates, but we’re all very good friends. We hold each other accountable both on the court and off of it.”
That may have been the precise moment where I realized what Miller had been trying to say all along. Perhaps the reason this team was so successful had more to do with the human beings inside the uniforms than anything else at all.
Of course, that’s what made the conclusion of Saturday’s game so bittersweet for everyone closely related with the program, even a relative stranger like me. With 43 seconds on the clock and Howard Payne leading 66-52, the Yellow Jackets called a timeout. Miller asked Kalb to step aside so he could speak with his four seniors on the bench.
As Miller lowered his head and spoke into his hand, he pulled Lobach, Schurr, Amy Reed and Gwen Avery in close. Sitting four rows up from the floor, I could not hear what was said, but I knew it was a final goodbye.
As the players took the floor, it was obvious they were moved. The image of Lobach wiping away tears while shouting, “I’ve got 22” to h
teammates will not be one I forget anytime soon.
A lump in my throat grew bigger.
Following the game, I believe most of the tears shed were not because of the loss, but rather due to the finality of it all. Lobach, Schurr, Reed and Avery had played their last game in a Messiah uniform, their last game for Miller, their last game together.
During the post-game press conference, I asked Miller to reflect on his seniors. He did his best, but became emotional while speaking.
Lobach then answered a similar question, fighting through what was surely a floodgate of feelings.
She came out as a pillar of strength.
“It is sad because we had such a close team, but there is a lot ahead of us seniors,” she said steadfastly. “Everyone wants to win their last game, but I’ve got so many great memories, those will never leave me. I’m so blessed to have had this experience. I wouldn’t trade it for any other.”
I wandered around Hope College’s DeVos Fieldhouse nearly an hour later, watching as the players hugged loved ones and reflected on what was arguably the greatest season in school history. I found Norma Miller, Mike’s wife of almost 25 years, and told her about how I was so impressed with Lobach’s depth and balance in the post-game press conference. We hugged, and she smiled at me.
“We all want to be like these girls when we grow up,” she said.
You can add me to that list.