By Jim Stout
Members of the Massachusetts State College Athletic Conference do not always command a lot of respect, especially in women's basketball.
Part of the slight is legitimate. Some MASCAC women's teams are among the weakest in the Northeast. Part of it also stems from the elitist attitude of some of the region's elite private colleges, who constitute a large percentage of Northeast membership.
In both regards, the win by Salem State last weekend in the Northeast sectional final at Williams College was a triumph for state institutions everywhere.
Western Connecticut State, which will host Salem and three others this weekend in the NCAA women's Division III Final Four, can revel in the Vikings' achievement as well.
The Little East Conference, to which Western belongs, and the MASCAC are the Northeast's only two state conferences. It isn't always easy these days to attract high caliber student/athletes to state institutions, particular with the creative aid packages that privates use to circumvent the athletic scholarships void.
Salem's Tim Shea, who was coaching the Vikes long before public vs. private became a heated issue, doesn't take the debate too seriously. That's undoubtedly one of the reasons he still succeeds in this climate. He is not concerned with what people think -- not in public, anyway.
What Shea did have to contend with last weekend, however, was trying to get his team to the Final Four after sleep-walking through the MASCAC schedule. No matter how hard you root for the state schools to succeed, facing Framingham and Fitchburg and Massachusetts College a bunch of times doesn't exactly prepare you for the national championship.
Salem (28-1) will face St. Benedict, and Scranton will play defending champion Washington of St. Louis in Friday's national semifinals at the O'Neill Center.
"We thought about that before the tournament began," said Salem center Kara Lunden. "Before we played Southern Maine (in the first round) we talked about how we hadn't played a big game for a while and how we had to come out and practice and play even harder if we wanted to do well."
"It's all about intensity and focus," added Salem guard Terri Niles. "If we practice hard and then go out and do what we need to do in games, it doesn't matter who we're playing. We think we have a good team. We think we can play with anyone."
After beating Williams, the best team in the New England Small College Athletic Conference, and impressive Gallaudet University, Salem left no doubt as to their authenticity.
Though the Vikings opened the season with wins over Southern Maine and NYU, there weren't a wealth of games to talk about after that. The best of the MASCAC's after Salem -- Westfield and Worcester -- would middle of the pack teams in a more competitive conference. Babson, another team Salem routed, only qualified for the NCAA tournament by winning the New England Women's and Men's Conference in a down season.
Maybe Salem's most important late-season date came on Feb. 6, when it visited the tiny bandbox of a gym at Emmanuel College, and Emmanuel's irreverent coach, Andy Yosinoff. Most schools outside the Great Northeast Athletic Conference won't go to Emmanuel, where you have to contend with a small floor, a rackety pep band and the ranting and raving of Yosinoff on the sideline.
By contrast, Salem couldn't wait to get there.
"I'd rather go to Emmanuel than a lot of places," said Shea. "At least they have fans there and make a lot of noise. It's a tough place to play, but that's how you get tough yourself. We love it there."
Of course they love it. Entertainers always love a crowd, and the entertainment factor is part of what makes Salem a success.
The Vikings are essentially a one center, five guard team. They don't need to press to make their transition offense go. Put the ball in the hands of the Dee Jackson and Andrienne Johnson and watch them go. Back the defense into its own end and watch Missy Smock fire from the perimeter.
Salem's 76-60 win at Williams last Saturday night, played before a hostile crowd of 1,215, ended Williams' 23-game home winning streak.
"I get more pumped up when I see a crowd like that," said Smock, the tiny sophomore guard who hit 10 of 16 3-point attempts in the two sectional games. "Our team likes the excitement and the noise. I can't wait until next weekend."
The stakes -- and the competition -- will change markedly for Salem Friday night. The crowd at the Final Four will be bigger than anything the Vikings have seen in the Northeast. The infamous shooting backdrop at the O'Neill Center will be more challenging than the standard small college gym.
The opponent, 27-1 St. Benedict, comes from a Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference that has sent seven teams to the Final Four over the last 12 seasons.
But no one expected Salem to beat Gallaudet in the sectional semifinals, let alone Williams on foreign floor. The better the competition, the greater the pressure, the more Salem has excelled during the season.
The Vikings are loose, too, another trait that can be attributed to Shea's demeanor of not taking himself too seriously.
"We like to run and push the tempo," he said. "If you can't run-and-gun at this stage of the season, you're in trouble because plays break down. Everyone you're going to face plays great defense. You have to be able to improvise.
"But don't get me wrong," Shea added with a wry grin, "we do know how to run a couple of plays."
And the Vikings are still playing.