'No. 2 pencils' face season's biggest test

By Mark Simon

Rather than come onto the floor with a theme song blaring in the background, the Messiah women's basketball team creates its own music.

Every pregame warmup begins with team co-captain Kate Butler calling out a chant — one of praise and worship to the powers above and a reminder that the game is supposed to be enjoyable.

If that doesn't seem odd, maybe what follows does. The women all come together and yell out "No. 2, Dixon Ticonderoga!'' That's not a player found on the Messiah roster.

"It's for the pencil,'' said senior forward Amy Hitz. "If you break one pencil, it breaks easily. But if you try to break a whole box, it doesn't break. (The chanting) may sound funny too. But we spend a lot of time focusing on unity and it has a huge impact on our play. We like to say that like the pencils, we're pre-sharpened and ready for action.''

The 26-4 Falcons, based out of Grantham, Pa., are ready for prime time too, where they'll face Ohio Wesleyan in the national semifinals on Friday night. This is a group that is relaxed and ready to go, especially when it remembers how it got here.

Messiah trailed Marymount by three points in the waning moments of its sectional semifinal game and seemed headed back to Grantham after reserve forward Melissa Ehst missed a long jumper. Somehow the ball was punched back out near midcourt as the clock ticked down. Ehst recovered and flung a 25-foot shot that dropped in to tie the score with three seconds remaining.

Ehst followed that up with a pair of three-pointers in the second overtime to ensure a 93-82 win, then hit four consecutive trifectas in a four-minute second-half stretch to bury the favored hosts, The College of New Jersey, 72-61 in the sectional final. In her last three games, the 5-11 Ehst has made 13 three-pointers.

Not too shabby for someone who as a junior lost her starting role to sophomore Christina Vouriotis, who did such a good job replacing Ehst that she was named MAC Commonwealth League Player of the Year.

"She's been on fire,'' said Messiah coach Mike Miller. "She is a tough kid to handle and match up with because of her size.''

Vouriotis, a 5-11 forward, leads the team in both scoring (17.3 points per game) and rebounding (6.8 per game). Hitz is right behind her at12.9 ppg. and 5.9 rpg.

The Falcons try to always remember that they are a team first. When the starting lineups are introduced, everyone huddles together. When a player's name is called, she leaves to shake hands with her opponent, then rejoins the rest of the group.

"No role means more than anyone elses,'' said fellow starter Jess Mulberger, whom Miller called the Larry Bird of the squad for her love of the game. "Without any of the 13 girls, we wouldn't be going to Danbury.''

The first half of the win against New Jersey was a reminder of that, particularly because the team increased its lead after Vouriotis sat with two fouls in the game's opening six minutes. Any tension that was felt was eased when, at right around the same time starting guard Erin Wedemeyer came out for a breather and promptly headed to the wrong team's bench. She immediately burst out laughing.

"That was the difference in that game,'' said Miller. "They were tight and we were very loose. We're back to just having fun. When we lost to Elizabethtown in our conference championship, we started playing tight. We have to be enjoying the game to be free to use our talents.''

Wedemeyer and Amie Kretzing form the backcourt tandem that isn't afraid to slash to the basket in this motion offense. Reserves Jess Unick, Leanne Brofee and Heidi Marks, provide versatility, toughness, and a willingness to run through walls, off the bench. Size has been a big help, leading to many second-chance points. It helps to start two six-footers and bring another off the bench.

It also helps to know that no matter what, this team always feels like it has a chance to come through.

"They understand the ebbs and flows of the game,'' Miller said. "They make sure that we're focused, not on winning on losing, but on just playing the best that we can.''