February 11, 2014

Don't judge too quickly

More news about: Brandeis
Paris Hodges is one of two freshmen in the starting lineup for Brandeis.
Brandeis athletics photo by Mike Broglio, SportsPix

When the University Athletic Association’s preseason polls were released in November, the Brandeis women’s team was picked to finish dead last. The Judges however, didn’t waste one ounce of their energy worrying about the prediction.

Coach Carol Simon, now in the midst of her 27th season at Brandeis, said the players never considered themselves as the conference underdogs. Though the UAA includes No. 6 Washington University and No. 22 New York University, Simon said this Brandeis squad has solely focused on bettering itself and not getting stressed out about tough competition.

Now, the Judges are in the midst of a six-game winning streak, the program’s longest since 2008-09 season. All of these wins have come against conference opponents, including a January 26 win over Emory, which currently stands at 15-5 but at the time was ranked No. 7 nationally.

The road to a 12-8 overall record and a 6-3 conference record has not been easy for Brandeis. The Judges suffered a huge loss before the season even started when junior starting point guard Hannah Cain tore her ACL in a pickup game. Maria Jackson, a freshman and a starting forward, missed a few weeks during the first semester after suffering an illness.

But, Simon said the team’s maturity and determination helped overcome these blows and now with a healthier squad, the players are coming together at just the right time.

“You can’t worry about the uncontrollable,” she said. “You can only worry about what you can control. Regardless of injuries it’s something we always stress to the team. It’s one of those things where you want the kids back, but we can’t cry about it because let’s face it, it’s one of those things that other teams aren’t going to cry about either.”

Leading the charge for Brandeis has been a group of five seniors and a collection of determined underclassmen. Cain was the team’s lone junior and with her injury, freshman Paris Hodges has been thrust into the starting point guard role.

Simon said Hodges’ performance has been impressive, not only because of her youth, but also because her natural position is shooting guard.

“There was definitely the learning process for her at the beginning, but now she understands her role and what she’s got to do,” Simon said. “It’s never a blessing when a kid gets hurt, but in the long run here it gave Paris the opportunity to step in and learn quickly, and have to learn quickly.”

Since taking over the starting job, Hodges has become one of the team’s top rebounders, averaging five per game. Meanwhile, Jackson has quickly become one the team’s top scoring options in her freshman year, averaging 9.4 points per game with a 50 percent field goal percentage.

Senior captain Kasey Dean said the Judges’ ability to overcome injuries and the strong contributions from these younger players has led to one of the team’s best advantages. Instead of one superstar player lighting up the scoreboard, Brandeis has options. Dean, along with senior center Nicolina Vitale, leads the team with an average of just over 10 points per game each. Not far behind however, are Jackson with an average of 9.4 and sophomore guard Niki Laskaris with an average of nine. Dean said this type of ball distribution has come naturally to the team.

“I don’t think we’ve put a lot of attention and effort into it,” she said. “We’re going to work with what’s open and if they stop one thing, then we know we have another option that’s just as good.”

Another of the team’s strengths, Dean said, is one that doesn’t show up in box scores. Over the course of this winning streak, Brandeis has won by an average of 5.8 points. Dean said that the team’s overall sense of confidence and trust in one another has led to an element of calm on the floor, even in tight games. These intangibles have been huge elements in each of these wins.

The Judges lost some close games at the beginning of the season, including a three-point loss to Colby in November and a nine-point loss to UMass-Dartmouth in December. Dean said there were lessons in these games and combining that with the confidence instilled from the first wins of the streak over Rochester and Emory, helped the team get on track.

“Once we got the first close game we thought, ‘Ok we can do this,’” Dean said. “Then there was the second one, and it just kept building confidence where it got to the point where we have this innate feeling that it will work out. It will take care of itself and we’ll figure out a way to get this done.”

In addition to games against some of the top teams Division III has to offer, playing in the UAA also means Brandeis will be traveling more miles than just about anyone else. Based in Waltham, Mass., just outside of Boston, the Judges have to play conference games against Washington U. in St. Louis, Emory in Atlanta, Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, the University of Chicago and Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh.

The closest trips to conference opponents’ home courts come when the team travels to New York University (in Manhattan) and the University of Rochester. Being a student athlete can be challenging enough to keep up with the demands of the team and academic course load, but Simon said this team has risen to the challenge well and can turn hotel rooms, airplanes, airports and bleachers into a study hall.

“They bring their books in airports, on planes, in hotels and watching the men’s games,” she said. “They have their books out and they’re studying.”

Dean said the travel can be draining, but said it helps in building team chemistry and adds to the excitement of playing conference games.

“The reason a lot of us came here is that it’s a D-III program, but you travel like you’re Division I,” she said. “That adds something to it and makes it feel like it’s something bigger. It’s really fun to be a part of.”

With the season winding to a close, Brandeis has five games remaining to try and move up from its third-place tie with Chicago in the conference standings. With games against Washington University, Emory and NYU still to come, Dean said the team’s work is far from over.

“The rest of the season is huge in determining any type of postseason we might have or how we do in the UAAs,” she said. No matter what, games can go either way in this conference, no matter what [other teams] are ranked. That’s always just been the way it is. You can’t sleep on any team.”

Lions roar again

The Emerson men’s team made headlines earlier this season with its 90-79 win over Amherst on Dec. 7. At the time, the Lord Jeffs were the No. 1 ranked team the country and Emerson stood at 5–3.

The Lions were at it again on Thursday, Feb. 6, when they squared off against then No. 3 WPI on the road. In a tightly contested match throughout, Emerson took a four-point lead into the locker room at halftime. In the second half, sophomore guard Tyson Hallowell scored 12 of his team-leading 19 points, while sophomore guard Michael Thorpe and senior guard Jon Goldberg scored nine and eight second half points, respectively.

In the loss, junior guard Sam Longwell was the game’s high scorer with 21 points and junior forward Domenick Mastascusa contributed 16 for the Engineers.

With the win, Emerson improved to 11-9 and earned its reputation as a giant-killer. To keep the good times rolling, the Lions followed the win over WPI with a 30-point, 89-59 victory over Clark, another NEWMAC opponent.

Emerson currently stands at 5­-5 in the conference with four games remaining. Despite the loss to Emerson, followed by a 71-62 loss to Babson, WPI is still hanging on to the top spot in the NEWMAC with an 8-2 conference record.

Wrapping up in the NESCAC

It should surprise few that as the regular season comes to a close, the region’s top two men’s teams come from the NESCAC. Amherst and Williams have been neck and neck all season and currently stand at No. 7 and No. 8 respectively.

Though Amherst swept the season series, 2­-0, the Ephs are otherwise undefeated in the conference and are 19-3 overall. For its final two games of the regular season, Williams will hit the road for two games in Connecticut. First will be a Valentine’s Day match up with Connecticut College (9-11), followed by a Feb. 15 game against Wesleyan (10-12).

Amherst is down to just one game remaining, when it heads to Middlebury on Sunday, Feb. 16.

No. 24 Bowdoin was looking to make a push for the conference’s top spot, but a 69-66 loss at Middlebury on February ninth, dropped the Polar Bears 5-3 in the NESCAC. However, with an 18-3 overall record, this Bowdoin squad could still turn some heads come playoff time. The Polar Bears end their regular season on the road against in-state rival Bates, followed by a trip to Tufts.

Spoiler alert?

We updated the women’s race in the Empire 8 last week, but as the season approaches the finish line, it just keeps getting better. Hartwick led the conference for the entirety of the season, but a red-hot Ithaca team stands just a half-game behind the Hawks for the conference lead, while riding a 10-game winning streak.

Though these two top teams won’t face each other for the rest of the regular season, both squads will have to face off against Elmira. The Soaring Eagles have flown under the radar this season, piecing together a solid 14-6 overall record.

Ithaca will be the first to take on Elmira, when the Soaring Eagles visit the Ben Light Gymnasium on Feb. 14. The Bombers won the first matchup, posting a 62­-48 victory on Jan. 28.

Hartwick will end its season against Elmira on Feb. 22.

Though Elmira appears to be on the outside looking in, the Soaring Eagles could cause problems for its upcoming opponents. Senior guard Jessica Zoltowski leads the Empire 8 with an average of 21.2 points per game and 424 total points so far this season.

Drama in the GNAC

The No. 17 Albertus Magnus Falcons have certainly been impressive this season, but may be feeling some pressure as their top spot in the GNAC could be threatened in the coming weeks.

The Falcons are 19-2 overall and 13-1 in the conference, but right behind them in conference standings are Johnson and Wales (12-2) and Saint Joseph’s, Maine (11-2).

Albertus Magnus and Johnson and Wales will have one more regular season tilt before the season wraps up, with a meeting in providence on Tuesday, Feb. 18. Johnson & Wales sophomore guard Quarry Greenaway has established himself as one of the conference’s top players, averaging 18.9 points per game, good for fifth in the GNAC.

The two teams met on Jan. 29, when the Wildcats nearly pulled off the upset, falling 78-74 on Albertus Magnus’ home floor. The Falcons’ Eian Davis led all scorers in that game with 22 points, but Johnson & Wales’ sophomore guard Robert Lewis wasn’t far behind 18.

Contact me

We’ve got exciting conference races all over the region and conference tournaments on the horizon. It’s the most exciting time of the season in Division III and I can’t wait to see how it unfolds. Please send me any story ideas from the East and Northeast regions to cory.francer@d3hoops.com.

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Andrew Lovell

Cory Francer is a freelance journalist whose sports writing has appeared in publications including USA Today, the New Hampshire Union Leader and the Concord (N.H.) Monitor. He covered men's team handball in Beijing during the 2008 Summer Olympics and contributed content to arenafootball.com during the 2011 season. He most recently was a staff writer at The Hippo, a weekly arts and entertainment publication in Manchester, N.H. Cory graduated from Ithaca College in 2010 with a B.A. in sport studies and a minor in writing.