By Adam Turer, D3sports.com
|Thomas More Saints, 2016 national champions
Photo by Larry Radloff, d3photography.com
Jeff Hans always keeps his cool.
He’ll fire up his team when it needs a kick in the pants, but for the most part he maintains an even keel and makes sure his team has fun in its preparation. When discussing his seniors following Monday night’s championship victory, his voice briefly quavered, a rare public moment of emotion from the two-time title winning coach.
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The emotions were stirred not by this senior class’s ridiculous winning percentage and two national championships, but because these seniors were Hans’ first full recruiting class. He took the reins of the program in the summer of 2011 and led the Saints to the second round of the tournament in his first season, without a senior on the roster. The next year, he brought in a group that included Olivia Huber and Alexa Santamaria, key contributors to the back-to-back title runs. Kiley Bartels transferred in to join the program for the second semester of that 2012-13 season. Sydney Moss transferred in a year later from Florida, followed by Sam Cady transferring from Lake Forest the following year.
“You never want to say bye to any seniors. It’s rare to have five of them in Division III like we do,” said Hans. “We have five good ones--good players and good young ladies--that have meant so much to the program. That’s why it’s a little tougher. I can’t say enough about them.”
The Saints finished 25-5 in Hans’ first season. With this group of seniors leading the way, Thomas More has won 124 of its past 127 games, including 66 straight with two national titles.
The Saints are talented, but talent alone would not have brought this team to such great heights. It was the bond shared amongst teammates, led by these five unselfish seniors and their head coach, that allowed Thomas More to ascend to the top of Division III basketball.
“We’re a huge family. [Hans is] like our dad. He has our backs whether we’re on the floor or off the floor,” said Moss. “The girls on the team, we’re like sisters. We have our ups and downs like every team, but at the end of the day, we know we have each other’s back.”
“What we try to build around is playing for each other,” said Hans.
Six Saints teammates played high school ball together—Kiernan, Huber, Bartels, and freshman Michaela Ware prepped at Newport Central Catholic, and Owings played alongside freshman Maggi Bosse (and 2015 Thomas More grad Sydni Wainscott) at Simon Kenton. Seventeen of the 19 players on this year’s roster attended high school within an hour of Thomas More’s campus.
It’s unusual at this level to have the kind of retention that Thomas More has enjoyed in recent years. Other than the two seniors who graduated, every member of last year’s team returned this season. A championship certainly helps factor into those decisions, but it is also the competitive atmosphere created by Hans. He makes his players want to stick around and improve together.
“He’s a great coach and a great guy,” said Moss. “I’m so glad I picked Thomas More and had him as my head coach to end my college career.”
The family environment did not start with Hans’ first group of recruits. The players he inherited, like Devin Beasley and Katie Kitchen, were instrumental in leading the Saints to the sectional final in 2014 and fostering that family atmosphere with the underclassmen who later became two-time national champions. Beasley and Kitchen traveled to the Final Four and national title game each of the past two years, showing that the family bond extends beyond a Saint’s playing days.
“To see them be behind our players, it’s just a special feeling,” said Hans.
There is no doubt that the five seniors will be greatly missed, but there is also no reason to expect a drop-off in the program’s success. The Saints were a consistent winner before these seniors arrived. They helped get the program over the postseason hump and become a national powerhouse. Yes, Moss is irreplaceable, as Gordon Mann wrote this week. But, there is plenty of talent still on the roster and Hans will continue to stockpile more.
Sophomores Owings and Kiernan have yet to lose a game in a Saints uniform and have earned all-conference honors in each of their first two seasons. Owings was an All-American this year. Freshman Madison Temple fell under the Division I recruiting radar after suffering two major knee injuries in high school. Once she committed to Thomas More last summer, she quickly worked her way into the starting lineup. As a freshman stepping into a championship team, all she did was average 11.4 points and 5.1 rebounds a game and earn PAC Freshman of the Year honors after leading the conference in field goal and three-point field goal percentage. Her 3-pointer with 4:19 to play proved to be the title game dagger, extending the Saints’ lead to seven and forcing Tufts to call a timeout. She has three classmates who Hans expects to play even bigger roles next season.
When Hans played nine players in the first quarter of the national title game, it wasn’t to send a message to his starters. The Saints really were that deep this year. That depth will take a hit with the graduation of five of those nine players. During the Hans era, the Saints have not had to replace more than two seniors in a season before. But, 58 percent of the team’s scoring and rebounding returns next season.
This senior class made history, both at Thomas More and on a national scale. Their younger teammates were determined to send them off as champions. That was evident in the 14-2 run the Saints went on to close out what was a tie game with 6:28 to play.
“This is the best way we could go out,” said Huber, who along with Santamaria finishes as the winningest player in program history with 124 career victories.
With all of the expectations weighing on them this season, the Saints accomplished every single one of their goals. A wire-to-wire season doesn’t happen without the selflessness and camaraderie shared by these teammates. Winning a second straight title wasn’t a relief; it was a joy.
“For our players to be able to do what we did and handle all the outside pressure, they handled themselves very well,” said Hans.
“It is sweet.”