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Montclair State has gone 87-5 over three seasons, but this is the Red Hawks' first Final Four. And it's perfect timing for Karin Harvey, who grew up in Michigan and attended a Grand Rapids college.
Montclair State athletics photo 

By Sarah Sommer
for D3sports.com

Montclair State women’s basketball head coach Karin Harvey described her team’s travel to the Final Four — a flight to Detroit, followed by a bus ride to Grand Rapids, Mich. — not as a hassle but as a joy.

“I was kind of thinking that I was kind of excited that we were going to be driving for a couple hours,” she said in a telephone interview on Monday, two days before Montclair State arrived in Michigan. “Thinking that it would be kind of cool just to be driving through the state.”

The bus ride excited Harvey, she said, because she knows Michigan’s roads well.

After playing its first four NCAA Tournament games at home, No. 7 Montclair State (30-1) is away for the Final Four. The Red Hawks face No. 3 George Fox (31-0) in the national semifinals on Friday at Calvin’s Van Noord Arena.

Yet the trip to Grand Rapids is also a homecoming. Harvey grew up in Michigan and graduated from Aquinas, just 3.5 miles from Calvin.

“I haven’t been in the new arena,” Harvey said of Van Noord, which opened in 2009. “But I’m familiar with Calvin College, and I’m familiar with their campus.”

Harvey is also familiar with Battle Creek, Mich., where she spent the first 14 years of her life; Reed City, Mich., where she graduated from Reed City High School in 1988; Ann Arbor, where she attended Concordia University for three years; and Deerfield, Mich., where she coached high school basketball.

A shooting guard, Harvey played basketball at Reed City and at Concordia, an NAIA program. But she envisioned a future in coaching.

I wasn’t the most talented basketball player,” Harvey said. “I was like the sixth man. So I spent a lot of time sitting next to my coach, and I was close to him in high school. And then when I went to Concordia I was sixth man there, and my basketball coach was one of my professors, and I was close to him and his family.”

“And so I think I just always knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

Harvey’s father passed away from stomach cancer after her junior year at Concordia, leading Harvey to take three years off from college, she said. She worked full-time at a restaurant while helping her mother. Harvey then resumed her studies at Aquinas, where she graduated with a B.S. in physical education and recreation in 1997.

As an undergraduate at Aquinas, Harvey began her coaching career as a student assistant to women’s basketball head coach Linda Nash.

“She came and sought me out,” Nash said via telephone. “She’s that kind of person that if she wants to make something happen, she makes something happen.”

Harvey has made a lot of things happen at Montclair State. Now in her eighth season as head coach, she has led the Red Hawks to their first Final Four after leading them to their first Sweet Sixteen two years ago and their first Elite Eight last year. Montclair State has also won the past three NJAC championships. The Red Hawks have 30 victories this season, a program record.

Yet this year has also been a heartbreaking one for Harvey. Her mother passed away on Dec. 22 after suffering from pulmonary hypertension.

The Final Four marks Harvey’s first trip to Michigan since helping her mother, Martha Hall, move out about seven years ago, Harvey said. At that time, Hall moved to New Jersey to live with Harvey. She became a regular at Montclair State’s home games.

Hall became ill about six years ago, Harvey said, and this season, attending the Red Hawks’ games was too difficult for her. She attended only one game — Montclair State’s 63-55 win over Marymount on Dec. 16, which made Harvey the winningest coach in team history.

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“I got her in a wheelchair and got her to the game,” Harvey said. “On the way to the game, she said, ‘Thanks so much for doing this. I know this is going to be the last basketball game I get to see.’”

Seeing her mother’s empty seat at Panzer Athletic Center — Hall sat in the same spot for every game — has been tough, Harvey said. And going to the Final Four is bittersweet.

“She would have loved this,” Harvey said. “But I know that she’s got a good seat now.”

Two people who plan to watch Harvey’s team on Friday are Nash, the Aquinas head coach, and Beth O’Boyle, the head coach of Division I Virginia Commonwealth’s women’s basketball team. O’Boyle was Montclair State’s head coach for three seasons. While there, she hired Harvey as an assistant. She and Harvey still talk frequently.

She develops really great relationships with the players,” O’Boyle said of Harvey in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “They want to get better because of the way that she believes in them.”

Harvey’s players also care about her.

“We all wanted to bring Coach back to Michigan,” senior forward Melissa Tobie said in Montclair State’s postgame news conference on Saturday, after the Red Hawks defeated Salisbury in the Elite Eight.

And now, Harvey is home.

“I don’t know if it feels like a home game,” Harvey said in the telephone interview on Monday. “But I’m going to feel very comfortable.”