Ripon rebuild comes full circle

More news about: Ripon
Hartman leads by example, providing whatever spark the team needs in addition to senior leadership.
Ripon College Athletic Communications photo

By Adam Turer

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: the second year of Lauren Johnson’s tenure as Ripon College head coach did not go according to plan.

Johnson, just the third coach in program history, took over for legendary coach Julie Johnson, who amassed 303 wins in her 23-year career.

In her first season, Lauren Johnson led the Red Hawks to a 10-13 finish, the same record that Julie Johnson posted in her final season. Then, the bottom dropped out.

A young Red Hawks team struggled to a 2-21 finish. The program faced a crossroads: buy in to their new coach’s system and culture and turn things around, or get used to life in the Midwest Conference basement. What followed next was commitment, growth, and dedication. Not coincidentally, that led to wins.

As sophomores, the Red Hawks improved by 12 games, finishing 14-10. As juniors, they posted a 17-7 record and 15-3 conference mark. The past two seasons ended in the MWC tournament semifinals. Now, Ripon is the frontrunner for the MWC women’s basketball title, which would be its first regular season title since 2005 and first conference tournament championship since 2009.

“I think it was a year that tested us, but it was a year of motivation. We wanted to come back and be better than ever,” said senior Emma McDonald. “It pushed us to make ourselves better and to make each other better in practices. We knew it wouldn’t be like that forever so we had to keep pushing.”

McDonald is one of five seniors on the Red Hawks roster. They originally came in as a class of ten. Now, McDonald, Jonalee Elliott, Mikayla Hartman, Eleanore Mueller, and Renate Baker are seeing the benefits of sticking it out after that challenging freshman season.

“That says a lot about them as people and their character and their goals and what they’re driven by. It would be awesome if we could have every senior class be like them,” said Johnson. “We’ve grown a lot together and battled a lot together. We’ve experienced a lot of emotions. They’re doing what we want them to do as a senior class. They’ve grown in leadership, they’ve grown in expectation of themselves, and they’ve grown in their commitment to Ripon College and Ripon women’s basketball.”

On the court, the lumps they took as freshmen give them an edge over the competition. Hartman, McDonald, and Elliott all saw significant playing time as freshmen.

“Having that experience made us grow up pretty fast, faster than other freshmen in the league,” said McDonald. “We’ve seen some things that maybe some other [current] seniors in the league haven’t seen.”

Mueller had a different perspective, as she had to miss her freshman season due to injury. Being off of the court was difficult enough, especially when Mueller believed she could have helped the struggling team reverse its fortunes.

“Not getting to play is frustrating in itself, but seeing your teammates struggle and not being able to help was frustrating,” said Mueller. “I was determined to be a sparkplug to help us reshape our program. It’s been great to see the transition.”

Elliott and her four senior classmates are in the MWC driver's seat for the first time.
Ripon College Athletic Communications photo

The players and their coach all pointed to the second half of the 2015-16 season as the turning point for the program. The Red Hawks needed to play their best basketball and that some other teams above them in standings stumbled down the stretch. Seemingly every bounce went their way, and Ripon qualified for the MWC tournament just one season after going 2-21.

“We were really in a fortunate situation where we had to win out and some other teams had to lose out. Fortunately for us, the stars aligned. That helped us feel pretty fortunate and grateful and hopefully hit home that we have to take care of our own business,” said Johnson. “If a team can commit to being its best and still trying to improve and get a little bit better in that last month of the season, there’s that realization that to control your own destiny you’ve got to continue to try and get a little bit better at something that last part of the season. By the end of their sophomore year they had close to 180 practices, and that’s a big deal. They had played 45-50 games. All of that experience turned in our favor.”

That freshman season sticks with these seniors, but also seems like a distant memory. There were lessons learned, but the Red Hawks are excited to be on the other side of the conference standings in mid-January.

“We mention sometimes how freshman year was a rocky transition, but we don’t dwell on it because we’ve had more success through the years,” said Elliott. “We want to set the standard higher. It’s been an overall amazing experience to work our way up from the bottom.
Now we understand that we need to play every game as if it might be our last. We understand that we do have a target on our back now instead of pursuing the best of the conference.”

St. Norbert had won eight of the past 11 MWC titles. But the program is serving a 10-game suspension and the Green Knights are ineligible for the conference tourney this year. That means that Ripon, at 7-1 in conference play, is in the driver’s seat. The Red Hawks avenged their only MWC loss by defeating Cornell on the road on January 13. It was the first time any of the current players had defeated Cornell, which provided an emotional boost of confidence.

The way they conduct themselves off of the court has been just as vital to the program’s turnaround. Whether it’s hosting youth camps or participating in local service events, the Red Hawks seniors have made sure that they represent Ripon in the community.

“Our players have done an awesome job to committing to being visible and making an impact on community. They understand that when it comes down to it, wins or losses, we’re trying to leave the environment better than we found it,” said Johnson. “That starts with this class. They bought into that even when they were freshmen getting their butts kicked. That’s why they’ve been able to get better not just as basketball players, but as student-athletes and people.”

The players continued to push themselves, even when at times it felt like they were rolling a 500-pound boulder up a hill. They developed their leadership skills as teenagers and now as seniors they have firmly established a proven culture of success.

“We talk a lot about accountability, holding each other accountable every day,” said Hartman. “We rely heavily on our community for support and we give back to our community through our service opportunities. We were building our culture [as freshmen], now we have it and can hand it down to the underclassmen.”

On the court, the goals never wavered. Whether they were outmatched freshmen limping to a two-win campaign, or hopeful sophomores who needed a whole lot of late-season luck, one thing kept motivating these Red Hawks.

“Our goal has always been the same: we want to bring a championship back to Ripon,” said McDonald. “That always pushed us to be our best no matter what happened the season before.”

With 10 regular season games to play, that goal is well within reach. These seniors persevered and proved to one another that they deserve to finish their careers at a stage they have yet to reach before: the NCAA tournament.

Adam Turer

Adam Turer graduated in 2006 from Washington and Lee University where he was a two-year starter at free safety for the Generals' football team. A contributor to since 2007, Adam is now the lead columnist for the site, writing Around the Nation and other national features. He lives in Cincinnati and covers area high school sports in addition to his full-time job as an attorney.
2016-17 columnist: Erik Buchinger
2011-16 columnist: Josh Smith