When Katy Hicks, Josie Lee and Michela North came to Tufts University in 2013, they didn't know that all-expenses paid spring break trips would be part of the package.
Though Stevens Point (Wisc.), Grand Rapids (Mich.), Columbus (Ohio) and Indianapolis aren't typical spring break destinations, the Tufts Women's Basketball seniors feel blessed to have traveled to these locations for the NCAA Division III "Final Four" in mid-March.
On Friday night, Hicks, Lee and North will suit up for Tufts at their fourth consecutive "Final Four." The Jumbos face the University of St. Thomas (Minn.) in a national semi-final at Calvin College (5:30 p.m.).
"Each of them has put their own unique stamp on the program," head coach Carla Berube said, "but together they have been great leaders and great teammates. Getting back to the Final Four was something the other players really wanted to help them achieve."
Make no mistake about it, the seniors and their teammates have earned these trips. They have helped turn the Jumbos into a national power under Coach Berube.
When the Tufts coach was hired in 2002, the team had won just once in New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCSAC) games during the previous season. Over the next 15 years, Berube built the Jumbos into an annual NCAA qualifier. The team earned its first NCAA berth in 2008 and made an unexpected run to the "Elite 8." Four more berths were earned in the following five years, including a "Sweet 16" appearance in 2013.
Then in 2014, the program broke through nationally. They went 10-0 in NESCAC and won their first conference championship. Tufts was selected to host NCAA Regional and Sectional rounds and reached the "Final Four" for the first time. Hicks, Lee and North were freshmen on that team which earned a trip to Stevens Point.
"We all had a new sense of pride for our school and our team that felt much different than in the past," Lee said. "It was the first time we really saw our full potential as a team. We saw how good we are, and with that, how much better we can become."
National success would take hold in 2015. The Jumbos posted a second straight 10-0 season in the NESCAC and won their second conference championship in a row. Hosting the NCAA Regional and Sectional rounds again, Tufts earned its first trip to Grand Rapids for their second "Final Four."
"Our second trip to the Final Four was much different from our trip in 2014," said Hicks, a sophomore on that team. "Heading to Calvin that year we were much more level-headed because we had experience playing at that level.
"Looking back on it now, I can only think about the seniors on that team - Kelsey Morehead, Hayley Kanner, Hannah Foley and Hannah Artner," Hicks continued. "They were incredible leaders and role models, and I hope that when the underclassmen look back on this year they will see us the same way."
An era ended with the graduation of the 2014-15 seniors, but they had influenced a new group of leaders. With Hicks, Lee and North as juniors in 2015-16, the Jumbos would take another step nationally.
The season would be special for a few reasons. To celebrate the 35th anniversary of the NCAA women's basketball tournament, all three divisions would play their championship games at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, home of the NBA's Pacers and the WNBA's Fever.
Though they went 10-0 in the league again – including ending Amherst's extraordinary 121-game home winning streak - the Jumbos lost in the conference championship game to Amherst. They received an at large berth into NCAA's, but had to hit the road for the first two weekends while the Tufts men's team hosted.
After reaching a third consecutive "Final Four," the team still had to do something they had never done before in order to advance to Indianapolis – win a national semi-final. Playing in Columbus at Capital University, Tufts defeated Wartburg 63-50 to earn a spot in its first-ever national championship game.
"Last year's experience was by far the most amazing to me," North said. "We felt really welcomed in Indianapolis and it was a special feeling being part of the 35th anniversary. We were excited that we had finally made it past the Final Four after two years and had a shot at the national championship."
Probably the only thing the Tufts seniors would change about their Final Four trips are the results. As North referenced, they lost NCAA semi-finals in both 2014 and 2015. After reaching the championship game last year, they were defeated by Thomas More College 62-51.
The Jumbo seniors and their teammates now have the opportunity to write the perfect ending to this outstanding four-year run of success. Regardless of what happens this weekend though, Hicks, Lee and North have been a part of something special and have done their part to see that it continues.
"I think that working hard and playing for your teammates was engrained in us since we were freshmen," North said. "We've taken that and rolled with it each year."
Written by Paul Sweeney, Director of Athletic Communications