The Warhawks' inspiring run

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Mary Merg is hoping to follow in her brother's footsteps a year after Alex Merg helped the UW-Whitewater men win Walnut and Bronze.
Photo by Larry Radloff,

By Brian Falzarano

A year ago, UW-Whitewater’s women’s basketball season ended after a second consecutive first-round elimination from the Division III NCAA Tournament. That afforded Mary Merg and several her teammates the chance to take a road trip that, in some respects, helped shape this season.

Merg’s brother Alex played a pivotal role for the men’s Warhawks, who trekked halfway across the country for the Division III men’s basketball Final Four in Salem, Va., fell behind 18 points in the national final, and then staged a furiously memorable rally before celebrating under falling confetti.

Along with her teammates, Mary Merg watched from afar, distancing herself from the disappointment of another early NCAA exit while daring to dream 12 months into the future.

“A year ago, we told ourselves that this could be us,” Merg said. “We worked hard and here we are.”

For the first time since 2008, the No. 22 Warhawks (25-6) will find themselves at the Final Four, five years after junior point guard Kaitlyn Thill’s sister, Trisha, starred for a squad that finished third nationally. They will face a No. 6 Amherst program (30-1) making its fifth straight appearance in the national semifinals.

There are several ties that bind with this season’s version of Whitewater: Mary Merg’s connection to the men’s championship team, Thill’s sister playing for the Warhawks’ last Final Four roster, coach Keri Carollo coaching both of those teams, and the team returning to Hope College in Holland, Mich., after an early-season tournament helped inspire the confidence for this could-be championship run.

“This team, we've really grown and learned and improved tremendously from the start of the year to now,” Carollo said.

One of the players whose improvement Carollo cited, Thill, remembers only a few details from her sister’s trip to the national semifinals that she witnessed from the stands. However, the trip was more about a feeling that has fueled her -- much the way Merg derived motivation from watching her brother.

“I think it was really fun and great for her to experience that,” Thill said. “I just wanted to do it myself too … I just can't believe that we're going.”

And then there is the same coach, Carollo, who orchestrated both of these Final Four runs. While the 2008 team started strong, a coach always appreciates seeing continued progress from a season’s opening tip to its final buzzer -- especially after seeing her team eliminated after 40 minutes each of the previous two seasons.

“It's a whole different team,” Carollo said. “I think that's the fun thing about it. It's different dynamics, but I'd say with this group it's more rewarding.”

For all of the ties that bind between previous Final Four runs and the 2011-12 Warhawks winning it all, there is one from this season which could serve Carollo’s young women well this weekend: Having played a pair of games in Hope’s DeVos Fieldhouse in mid-December.

Disregard a 56-point victory over Kalamazoo in the first round of the Hope College Tournament. The championship game, a 63-52 setback on Dec. 15, benefited UW-Whitewater twofold.

First and foremost, as if the Warhawks needed additional motivation with a Final Four berth in the balance, they played especially inspired in last Saturday’s 65-60 victory over No. 2 Hope to deny its opposition a chance to play in the showcase it is hosting this weekend.

“We wanted revenge against them,” Thill said. “I knew this was the game to beat them.”

Most importantly, outside of Amherst’s learning the DeVos Fieldhouse’s surroundings last March, none of the four teams playing this weekend will possess the Warhawks’ recent familiarity with the facility.

“I think it helps a lot,” Merg said. “We know the rims, we know the floor. We actually practiced and played two games (there). I think that's a huge advantage going into the game. We know what to expect.”

As for us fans, what to expect is a stark contrast in styles. The Warhawks will run and press and go 10-11 deep with Thill (11.9 points, 3.5 assists, 3.4 rebounds, 3.4 steals per game) providing tenacious on-ball pressure and both senior center Courtney Kumerow (13.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 1.5 blocks) and Berg (10.0 points) joining her in averaging double digits.

Conversely, Amherst plays a more deliberate style and will travel to the Final Four with a 10-player roster.

One year after watching the Warhawks’ men celebrate with the Walnut and Bronze, and five years after Thill’s sister helped power the program’s only other Final Four run, UW-Whitewater finds itself two wins away from following it the men’s footsteps.

“It's a dream come true,” Merg said. “This is what you work for.”