Win, watch, repeat?

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Sydney Moss understands Thomas More has had a target on its back as the defending national champions.
Photo by Eric Kelley,

By Adam Turer,

Can Thomas More defend its title? Will the Saints repeat as champions?

These are the kind of foolish questions that outsiders like you and I have been asking all year. For those who have been through the process, these questions are irrelevant.

“It’s not a repeat. So much changes each season. It’s a much different journey each year,” said Wash. U. coach Nancy Fahey, the last D-III women’s basketball coach to win consecutive titles.

During the Bears’ four straight championships from 1998 through 2001, Fahey told her team each season: “We don’t have to be last year’s team.”

Even though Thomas More returned most of its roster intact from last season, this is still a wholly different team.

Scott Frey, who has twice led Messiah’s women’s soccer team to back-to-back titles, echoed Fahey’s sentiment.

“Having perspective is the biggest thing. To get caught up trying to defend is maybe the worst thing you can do,” said Frey. “You can’t think of it as trying to defend a title. You have to realize that each season is its own entity.”

Winning the first one feels great. Getting back to that pinnacle is always a challenge. Frey’s teams won in 2008 and 2009, then again in 2011 and 2012. Yet, he felt that his best team was the 2010 team that fell short of winning it all.

“If you think just because you’ve done it once, you should be able to do it again, that’s not the case,” said Frey. “Nothing’s ever a given. That’s the beauty of sports.”

The Saints knew that after winning the program’s first title last year, they would be expected to do it again in 2016. At the same time, they realized that there’s only one game that gives them an opportunity to win the title. If they didn’t take care of business up through and including the national semifinal, there wouldn’t be a chance to raise another championship trophy.

“We’re very excited to go back,” said Saints coach Jeff Hans. “It’s one thing we talked about early and we didn’t talk about again, until now. We just want to build off of what we did last year.”

One thing the Saints have focused on this year is trying to have fun and enjoy going wire-to-wire while taking every team’s best shot each night. That is easier said than done.

“I’m not sure there is any way you can enjoy the journey during the regular season,” said UConn coach Geno Auriemma, whose program is the prohibitive favorite to play for its fourth straight D-I national title in Indianapolis. “It’s not supposed to be easy and it’s not supposed to be all fun and games and it’s important not to try and make it that way.  What’s fun is when the NCAA Tournament starts. Now because you can see the finish line, it becomes fun.”

Auriemma’s Huskies need one more win to go for their 11th overall title in the same arena where the Saints will try to win their second straight. Tufts, led by former Huskies champion Carla Berube, will present the Saints with another imposing challenge. The competition level has heated up in the past two games, first against Wash. U. in the sectional final then against Amherst in the Final Four. Thomas More has welcomed the challenge.

“We know we’re getting everybody’s best shot all throughout the year, but we don’t want to give in to it,” said Hans. “We’ll fight through it.”

Fahey’s Bears once won 81 straight games; the Saints’ current streak is at 65. Those Wash U. teams relished the challenge of being the favorite each season.

“You have to embrace it instead of fight it,” said Fahey. “We asked our players, ‘Wouldn’t you rather have teams give you their best game?’ You want to embrace that.”

Wash. U coach Nancy Fahey says winning consecutive titles is never easy and she ought to know. The Bears won four straight from 1998 through 2001.

Yet, after winning the first championship in 1998, the coaches noticed that the team was a bit loose at the beginning of the following season. Fahey’s staff made sure that after that first practice her team understood that last year’s title would have no impact on the current season. It takes consistency and sustained effort to win consecutive championships.

“You have the best team, everybody knows you have the best team, so all you can do is lose. You have to be able to stick with the process,” said Frey. “It takes good fortune, too. There’s always a game or two that could have gone the other way. It helps to have really good players.”

Another challenge after winning the first title is some inevitable backlash. Eventually, the overwhelming favorite becomes the villain. The team has to bond together and ignore outside noise.

“You realize that nobody else is really pulling for you anymore,” said Frey. “You don’t worry about conversations outside of your team. We talk about it, we’re up front about it. We will work as hard as we can, but we can’t let [a championship] define the success of our season.”

The Saints have grown accustomed to being the team that everyone else wants to see falter.

“I think to be the defending national champs, we always have a target on our back. I think we had it there last year as well,” said Sydney Moss. “I think some people do want to see us succeed and go back-to-back. It’s fun having our family and friends and our community behind us.”

Thomas More hasn’t felt much pressure this year. They know that in the last season with their five seniors and particularly three-time Player of the Year Moss, they are expected to win it all. Expectations don’t necessarily equate to pressure.

UConn head coach Geno Auriemma says the journey becomes fun when you can see the finish line.

“Most pressure comes from what you put on yourself and from what your team puts on itself,” said Auriemma. “Pressure is different though and it really depends on what kind of team you have. If the team you have returning is clearly the best team in the country, there isn’t much pressure at all. You feel that you’re the better team and that alleviates a lot of pressure.”

The consensus from the coaches who have won back-to-back championships is that it takes a combination of competitiveness, talent, fortune, and drive to climb to the top of the mountain two years in a row. The Saints realize what is at stake in Indianapolis next Monday evening.

“We have five great seniors who are really great leaders for us,” said sophomore point guard Abby Owings. “As underclassmen, we want to play for them. This is their last shot. This is their last game and we’ve got to leave it all out there for them.”

The Saints made it through the regular season and first five tournament games at No. 1. Finally, for the first time all year, the long-term goal that was in the back of their minds has synced up with the imminent task at hand. Thomas More can realistically focus on winning a second straight national title.

“These five seniors have a chance to leave a legacy. Nobody’s done it in 15 years and we know it would be special,” said Hans. “These seniors, to send them off in the right way, it would be awesome.”