|With a reminder of Clare McNulty on her left wrist, head coach Ashlee Rogers gets ready for Marymount's second round NCAA tournament game against Albright.
Photo by Dave Hilbert, d3photography.com
By Ryan Scott
|Kiki Laux is Marymount's lone senior.
Photo by Dave Hilbert, d3photography.com
The Marymount Saints are on a journey.
“These girls are reminded every day what the goal is,” says head coach Ashlee Rogers. As a player at Marymount, Ashlee Rogers (then Courter) participated in four round of sixteen games, two final eight appearances, and the 2002 national semifinals.
“When they walk into the gym, it’s just women’s basketball banner after women’s basketball banner. They don’t want too many years to go in between. They want to be part of that legacy.”
- Sectional semifinal schedule, video links
- Coach Rogers on Hoopsville (March 5)
- 2017 NCAA Tournament bracket
- Full NCAA Tournament coverage
Since taking over the program, Rogers has been working to return to the lofty heights of her playing days. “Part of the reason I’m coaching is because of the experience I had at Marymount. I want to try and recreate that experience for my players.” Under Rogers, the Saints have made the NCAA tournament three times, but this year they’ve finally booked a trip the second weekend.
"We’re really excited to travel,” says junior point guard Leah Hurst. “I absolutely love this team and we’re going to have some fun flying,” adds senior Kiki Laux. The Saints haven’t flown to a game since they split a pair of games at a holiday tournament in Daytona in 2014. Only three players on the current squad made that trip.
Marymount's journey won't be the longest a team takes this weekend, but it might be the most unexpected. The Saints lost only five games all season, but they were routinely the third team mentioned in their own conference, behind No. 10 Christopher Newport and No. 22 Mary Washington. The Eagles lost to top-ranked Amherst on Satuday and CNU plays Hope at Ohio Northern this Friday.
"It was a different experience this year,” says junior Nicole Viscuso, “Last year we were No. 1 in our conference. It was nice to be out of the pressure cooker of everyone watching."
They needed the time to come together, incorporating six freshman into a squad that graduated four seniors last year. When it comes to experience, the Saints have just two sophomores, Hurst and Viscuso as juniors, and Laux, the lone senior. They’re also missing sophomore Clare McNulty who underwent brain surgery in late February as the next step on her journey toward health that began with a hard fall during a January 2016 game.
After taking a charge in that game, McNulty began a process that eventually resulted in a diagnosis of Chiari Malformation, a structural abnormality in the brain she likely had from birth. McNulty has been serving as a manager for the team this year. She is doing well after surgery, but was unable to journey with the team to North Carolina where the Saints defeated host Guilford and regional-foe Albright last weekend. McNulty is working toward a return to the team and the court next fall. Before each game, the Saints write “P4C,” Play for Clare, on their wrists to remember their absent teammate.
"[Clare] is always up cheering,” says Hurst, “She’s the loudest player on the bench. She’s traveled with us every game until she had to go get her surgery. She’s one of those players that has so much fight and is so aggressive. We’re playing with that aggressive mindset and wanting to win because we know how much she would want to win if she were out there.”
Aggressive is the hallmark of Marymount basketball. Routinely holding opponents under 50 points per game, defense drives the ship for the Saints. Says Laux, “Defense wins championships; I’ve never believed in anything more. Our defensive rotation has a lot of help. With our team, you help on defense and someone else helps you. Wherever the ball goes, there’s someone there. When you hold a team to under their average, it takes pressure off your own offense."
Hurst adds, “We’re going to rely on defense every game from here on – the offense will come from that."
That offense can be deceptive. Marymount defeated Guilford largely on the back of a 33-7 second quarter domination. “Everything came together and we all clicked,” says Hurst. “It was proof that, if we play like that, we can close some of these teams out.
"That second quarter was great,” says Rogers. “But I was really proud of how my girls found a way to win at the end.” Guilford rallied in the fourth quarter to cut the Saints' lead to one with 44 seconds remaining. Hurst hit free throws down the stretch to secure the win. “As a coach, you don’t want to be put in that position, but I was really proud that we were able to pull it out."
“It was so loud,” says Laux, “It was deafening. We’ve played against big crowds before, but they had a big crowd and it echoed. Everyone was cheering and chanting."
As a senior nearing the end of her journey, Laux feels the heaviness of the moment. “Getting towards the end of the season I’m starting to realize what it means. You don’t understand until you get there. Everything just means more. I have to share that message with the team – that drive, that passion."
Viscuso adds, “Kiki has been very intense this season because she knows it’s her last. In many ways we’re playing also for her because we want to send her out on a high note."
Laux improved from sixth best last season to second on the team in scoring and rebounding. When asked what she wanted her legacy to be, Laux replied, “Hard work and positivity. Nothing is going to get done unless you work hard for it. You have to work harder than anyone else. Then positivity, keeping each other together, keeping each other picked up. This isn’t an easy thing to do and the team really needs to support each other and be there for each other."
They’ll need every bit of that hard work and positivity when they face No. 2 St. Thomas (29-0) and All-American center Kaitlin Langer.
“It’s definitely a big challenge. We don’t come up against a lot of 6’3” All-Americans,” says Rogers. “But a lot of the pressure is on [St. Thomas]. They’re supposed to win. I try to remind my girls the year we went to the final four we were a Cinderella team, no one expected us to do that. We had a similar roster size and we had even more injuries than we do right now. I remind them that anything is possible.”
The Saints’ tournament may or may not end this weekend, but regardless of the outcome on the floor, their journey continues. They’re working hard to recover the glory their coach experienced as a player. They’re traveling halfway across the country to fearlessly face an undefeated foe, and they’re focused on both sending their senior leader out in style, while also upholding the example and expectations of an injured teammate.
They won’t have to imagine McNulty’s voice at St. Thomas. On Tuesday afternoon she received clearance from doctors to travel to St. Paul and will be on hand to witness and inspire the Marymount women as they work to add another banner to the rafters.