Turnaround is fair play

More news about: Amherst | Claremont-Mudd-Scripps | Wooster
Claremont-Mudd-Scripps started the season without Michael Scarlett and without many wins. Now the Stags have both back for the stretch run.
Photo by Claremont-Mudd-Scripps athletics

By Ryan Scott


Wooster is a well-recognized name in Division III basketball. That might be an understatement. The Scots are top five all-time for winning percentage and have the second most wins overall. Wooster has won 20 or more games every year since before any of the current players were even born. Entering the season, they had appeared in our Top 25 rankings more than every team but UW-Stevens Point.

We’re used to talking about Wooster in the national conversation, so when they started the season 3-3, including back-to-back conference losses to middle of the pack teams, some of us were a little confused. Yes, there were injuries, plus losses to graduation and transfer that had an impact, but you could be forgiven (especially if you live outside of Ohio) for not having thought about Wooster for most of the season.

Yet, at the end of the year, Wooster is right back where they expect to be: nationally ranked, challenging for No. 1 in the regional rankings, and, with Wittenberg’s loss at Ohio Wesleyan on Wednesday, in control of their own destiny. A win over Wittenberg on Saturday means another top seed in next week's NCAC tournament.

“We wouldn’t want it any other way,” says Wooster senior Spencer Williams. “We obviously have some strong feelings towards Wittenberg and we’d love to spoil and take that championship at their home court.”

Even if Wittenberg, once 21-0, and Ohio Wesleyan, who stormed out to a stellar start, got more press this year, the goals never change for Wooster. Coach Steve Moore is in his 31st season and points out, “We’re never under the radar. Every team gives us their best shot.”

Danyon Hempy has made some big shots down the stretch for the red-hot Wooster Scots.
Photo by Wooster athletics

Time and tenacity have given Moore perspective. He’s seen every possible way a season can play out and he remains undisturbed. “Goals don’t need to be said,” explains Moore. “I think everyone in the program knows what our goals are without having to talk about them.” He continues, “It took a little while for us to gel, but that happens a lot and we’ve steadily improved throughout the season.”

Adds Williams, “Coach Moore has so much passion. He wants to win so bad and he holds us to a higher standard. It’s almost like we don’t have a choice. We have to get it together to uphold the reputation. At Wooster, anything less than where we are now is a failure. It’s why we come here.”

Williams also sees how the team has used the slow start to achieve expected success. “It’s kind of been a theme for us over the years, starting slow and I don’t know why, but in some ways its beneficial to go through adversity early, so we can work out our issues. Those losses serve as motivation for the rest of the year.” Indeed, while it might not have looked like a typical Wooster season, February is starting to seem pretty familiar.

Claremont-Mudd-Scripps doesn't have the same legacy as a program as Wooster, but the Stags had higher expectations entering this season. After an eye-catching performance in last year’s NCAA tournament – beating Whitworth and taking Whitman to the wire – and with a lot of experienced players returning, the Stags were ranked No. 15 in the preseason D3hoops.com Top 25 poll.

Then they opened the year with four straight losses.

“I think we dropped out of the national conversation pretty quick,” says All-American senior Michael Scarlett, who was injured to open the season. “It’s tough not to be out there on the floor, but it allowed me to support the team in a different way and to have different guys step up as leaders.”

“We had a pretty tough schedule,” says head coach Ken Scalamanini. “Not many SCIAC teams go out and play a double Wisconsin dip [loses at Whitewater and Platteville] and we had two challenging games from the Northwest [home losses to George Fox and Puget Sound], who were playing really well. We didn’t play as well as we would’ve liked and there were some injuries, but the team kept working and getting better and now that we’re healthy, we have some real ammunition.”

Ammunition is correct. CMS has not lost a game in 2018 and, with a 13-1 SCIAC mark, has already clinched top seed in the conference tournament. “We treated the conference as basically a new season,” says Scalamanini. The squad looks like the team everyone expected coming into the season.

Says Scarlett, “Even though we lost those first four games, it made us a tougher team going forward. The underdog mentality really sparked something in practice. We knew we were better than we were getting credit for. We have something to prove.”

“I kind of like being under the radar,” adds Scalamanini. “Once we had adversity there are two ways to look at it: one is negative, pointing fingers, or you find solutions. We understood what our weaknesses were and we worked to get better. These guys make me proud for being resilient and never giving up. We want to extend this year as long as we can to be with these seniors.”

The Stags are led by four senior starters, plus Andrew Maddock, off the bench. They share the scoring load and rebound well as a team. Scarlett, though, is the lynchpin. It’s difficult to single him out, because he’s such a team player, but his individual ability makes a good team special.

Says his coach, “Michael Scarlett is one of the best players I’ve ever had in my program. He adds a level of confidence for the entire team. The number one defender goes to him (and can’t do much) and Mike’s a great passer. Having him healthy changes everything.”

In the end, Claremont-Mudd-Scripps is ready. They have depth and skill and experience. They’re in great position to make an NCAA tournament run, if they can get there. The Stags aren't in the most recent NCAA regional rankings that give a preview of which teams are in position to get at-large bids. That means it's likely automatic qualifying bid or bust.

“The only thing we can control is how hard we play,” says Scalamanini. “We control how fast we get back on defense. We control how we react after a bad situation. I limit expectations as much as I can. The past doesn’t matter today and the future doesn’t matter today. Today we want to get ready for the next game as best we can.”

Another program that found themselves in an unusual position this year is Amherst. A perennial national contender, led by a long-tenured coach in Dave Hixon, Amherst spent most of the season as an afterthought in their own conference. With two big wins last weekend, however, the Mammoths emerged from a five way tie to take the top seed in the NESCAC tournament.

Much like Wooster, the season is ending in the way we might expect, but the journey was anything but typical. Having graduated eight seniors from last year, Hixon is relying largely on players without much experience. He says, “I’m not sure I’ve ever had a team, in one year, grow so much as this team has.”

With just two seniors, Michael Riopel and Johnny McCarthy, growth has been the theme of the season. “A lot of our losses have been close,” says McCarthy. “We didn’t execute down the stretch. We felt like it was just a matter of time before we got over the hump.” 

When you have a young or inexperienced team, often the difference between losing 20 games and winning 20 games is coaching and the ability of the team to develop. Sometimes it takes losing – and Amherst lost more games than they’re used to – other times it takes creativity and a willingness to try new things.

Amherst senior Johnny McCarthy
Photo by Amherst athletics

“We read a team book over January, because we’re not in school,” says Hixon of The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace. “It’s a book about two different worlds, about white privilege. We’d read 80 pages or so and then have a discussion. It was such a great experience we brought the author in to talk with us.”

Intentionally bringing in difficult and sensitive topics like race and class in the middle of a basketball season with young players and a fair amount of pressure is a real gamble. There are a lot of ways it could go wrong. It proved to be a really positive experience for Amherst.

“It’s always a risk,” says Hixon. “But I do think we’re educators and in the end our sport is paid for by our colleges because they think it has a value. [The result of reading the book has been] closer relationships with their teammates. It takes a while. You have to break through barriers to be able to talk about sensitive issues with each other, but when you do there’s nothing you won’t do for each other.”

McCarthy adds, “It was good to be able to talk to your teammates in a setting outside of basketball. It definitely brought us together as a unit. A big theme of the book is different socio-economic classes and the way American society is shaped and how it affected the main character, Robert Peace, and how it filters into life here at Amherst and our backgrounds. Being able to talk openly about that kind of stuff with your team was really beneficial for us as a team.”

Hixon reflects, “One of the things that came out of the book was an expression ‘whatever hurts my brother, hurts me.’ We all sort of took that on and I think we’re closer and consequently I think we might be playing better somewhat because of that.”

A couple of freshmen starters have settled into their roles and the seniors have stepped up on defense and with rebounding. McCarthy led Amherst with 14 rebounds against Middlebury in the final game of the season and the team pulled down a total of 60.

“It makes an old man smile,” says Hixon, who picked up his 800th win with that victory over Middlebury. “You work so hard and you hope it bubbles through. I lay it on our kids, though. It’s not easy to be coached hard all year – being told over and over how you need to change – but they’ve stayed with it and they’ve changed and we’re getting better.” 

Of course there’s nothing guaranteed going forward. Amherst may have won the top spot in the NESCAC tournament, but their first round opponent, Bowdoin, has a nearly identical overall record. Says Hixon, “I was worried we might not make the tournament at all. I know eight teams make it, but who are the three who are going to be left out? There are no easy teams.”

McCarthy says, “Coming into the weekend, we knew we had to pile up some wins. This weekend we played with a lot of desperation and heart. We can’t really leave it up to [the committee] to decide whether we’re in [the NCAA Tournament] or not. We have to control what we can control. Everything is still in front of us.”

Hixon sums up the season, “It’s been fun. There are a lot of young kids who get worn down, they lose some games and get discouraged, but these guys haven’t done that. I hope we play in March, but if we don’t I will still be able tell people we had a great season because of the growth.”

Ryan Scot

Ryan Scott serves as the lead columnist for D3hoops.com and previously wrote the Mid-Atlantic Around the Region column in 2015 and 2016. He's a long-time D-III basketball supporter and former player currently residing in Middletown, Del., where he serves as a work-at-home dad, doing freelance writing and editing projects. He has written for multiple publications across a wide spectrum of topics. Ryan is a graduate of Eastern Nazarene College.
Previous columnists:
2014-16: Rob Knox
2010-13: Brian Falzarano
2010: Marcus Fitzsimmons
2008-2010: Evans Clinchy
Before 2008: Mark Simon