|Albright's team is built around Kelecia Harris, who wants to extend her senior season as long as possible.
Albright athletics photo
By Ryan Scott
In 2015, the Albright women went 20-7, finishing second in the Commonwealth Conference and losing to a loaded Stevenson team in the championship game. They did make the ECAC final, but lost again to conference foe Lebanon Valley.
"[Losing last year] motivates us so much," says All-American senior center Kelecia Harris. "Getting so far and being let down like that, we all use those emotions. We don't want to feel that again. We want to accomplish more."
So far this season, the Lions have accomplished a lot. They currently sit at 18-2 overall with a two-game lead in conference play. The team is tearing up a difficult schedule that included just one home game before Christmas.
They returned home in January, only to face undefeated and second-ranked Amherst; it was the team's first loss of the season.
"We had a bad first quarter," says Albright coach and alum Janice Luck, "but if you take that quarter out, we really settled in to the level of play. I think we'll matchup well if we see them again."
With so much success so far, that rematch doesn't seem too far-fetched.
The team is led in both points and rebounds by Harris, who's led the team in both categories all four years. But this season's squad is much more well-rounded. Transfer guards Nina Mazarelli and Alysha Lofton provide outside scoring to hold teams accountable for double- and triple-teaming Harris down low. Sophomore Jane Joyce and junior Shannon Thomas have stepped into bigger roles as well, to complement Emily O'Donnell, the only other senior and a career-long safety valve for Harris' whirlwind.
"Kelecia and Emily were impact players from the start as freshmen," says Luck. "They do play together, but when Kelly gets in foul trouble, Emily is very effective with immediate offense."
Having two big, skilled post players has helped provide a foundation that Luck has complemented with an ever-growing cadre of shooters and slashers, but key to the success is Harris' willingness to share the ball.
"She could be averaging 25 points per game," says her coach, "but most likely we wouldn't have the same record. She's willing to kick it out to shooters and slashers and this balance gives us more opportunities to win. The foundation [Harris] has left for the team is that I've been able to recruit guards who want to play with her. She's completely unselfish. She's absolutely focused on the team winning."
Winning doesn't always come easy in the Commonwealth, where the standings read like a who's who of regional contenders. The sixth place team is 12-8 overall. Albright is thus far unscathed, save for a ten-point road loss to second place Messiah.
Says Luck, "That loss showed us you can't just roll into a gym and win by ten, because that's what we'd been doing. It's a black eye on our schedule, but it's also a wake-up call."
This season is the culmination of a return to form for Albright, who made the NCAA Tournament in 2008 only to suffer a string of single-digit-win seasons before Harris and O'Donnell showed up.
"I learned it's a tough balance to keep up recruiting and also manage preparing for games at the end of the season," says Luck. "I'll admit I didn't work as hard as I could've recruiting that year and that's why we had some down years. I'm determined not to let that dip happen again. I'm determined to be a top team in Division III for a long time."
"It's been amazing [to build a program,]" adds Harris. "I was nervous my freshman year to even come and play basketball at a college level. We had a losing season, but we knew we were growing. Every year we kept growing. It's felt really good to start there and get to where we are today. Coach works so hard, the players work hard and it's great to show our hard work and achieve from it as well."
The success hasn't been overnight and so the Lions aren't overwhelmed by the spotlight or their national ranking.
"They feel like we belong [in the Top 25]," says Luck, "but in the locker room we hang up the conference standings, because that's our focus. We wanted the conference championship [last year] and didn't get it. They can't wait to get back to that game and win it this year. It would be extremely disappointing if we don't get there and if we don't win."
The team may be rightly focused on the conference, but their talent and ability has perhaps put a higher ceiling of what can be achieved. Players like Harris don't come along every year, especially players willing to put stats aside and sacrifice for the team.
"This has been the best season ever," she says. "The girls are amazing, the chemistry is amazing, everything fits in the puzzle. Even though it's not a perfect record, everything about it is perfect in my eyes."
There is an unusual combination of contentment and hunger on this Albright squad, which seems uniquely capable of enjoying the ride and also hungry for more. They talk about the loss to Amherst as just a bad night and look forward to the potential postseason rematch. They enjoy the renewed fan support and packed crowds for games, but know it means little if they don't finish the season strong.
Perhaps it's the atmosphere created by a coach who's seen struggle and success and struggle again or perhaps it's the embodiment of their star player's humility.
In either event, Harris sums up what the season's been so far quite well: "I'm a little nervous before games, because I don't want to let anyone down, but once I step on the court it all comes out of my head – I'm just thinking Albright basketball and winning."
A new look for Dickinson
The Dickinson men may be tougher to guard this week. Opponents will have to pay more attention to jersey numbers because they're all sporting the same haircut. Before a 64-62 home loss to Franklin and Marshall, Dickinson coaches and players shaved their heads in solidarity with one of their own. Sophomore Justus Melton has been in and out of the lineup the last month as he prepared to be a bone marrow donor for his sister Emily, who was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in November.
Melton discovered he was a donor match over the holiday break and took several games off to spend time with his sister and prepare for what became a successful operation on January 28. There will be further tests over the next few months to see if Emily is in the clear.
The Meltons set up a gofundme page (/prayforzero) to offset travel and medical expenses for Emily, who is a teacher in North Carolina. More than $11,000 in donations have poured in, many from familiar names around the Centennial Conference, including Dickinson's president, current and former players, as well as from coaches, players, and fans from conference opponents.
Melton will come back to school this week. He has medical approval to play as much as he feels up to playing, so Dickinson will work him back in slowly. This will be an important addition as the Red Devils continue to fight for the last spot in the Centennial Conference playoffs.
Play 4Kay at Moravian
Kay Yow was the women's basketball coach at North Carolina State University. She died in 2009, but her legacy lives on in her namesake foundation, which raises money for cancer research and, through a partnership with the Women's Basketball Coaches Association, becomes a recipient of fundraising efforts across the NCAA. For the past six years, Moravian has been the top Division III fundraising school and is celebrating its annual Play 4Kay Week right now. They have raised over $75,000 to date through a variety of online and community events – you can check out more information at www.play4kay.org
On the men's side of the Mid-Atlantic, almost everyone is alive. Christopher Newport has a big lead in the CAC, but every single team is within one game of playoff position. The Landmark isn't quite so balanced at the bottom, but the five top teams all have seven conference wins right now. With only four playoff spots available, someone will be left out. The Centennial has three clear favorites at the moment, but five teams within two games of their final playoff spot. And the Commonwealth has eight contending teams covering just a four-game margin. February will truly be an exciting month.
Drew's Mike Klinger topped 1,500 points this week. Alicia Marcks of Moravian and Amie Eppolito of Cairn both hit 1,000 points.
We are always on the lookout for good Mid-Atlantic region stories. I'm especially interested in statistical milestones and behind the scenes successes – these aren't always as easy to find in headlines and box scores. Contact me at email@example.com or @ryanalanscott on Twitter.
Around the Mid-Atlantic was written by Ryan Scott during the 2015-16 season. He now writes Around the Nation.