|Shenandoah, the eighth seed in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference tournament, didn't pack for a one-and-done. And they're not done yet.
Shenandoah athletics photo
By Brian Lester
|Shenandoah athletics photo
Shenandoah head coach Melissa Smeltzer-Kraft, right, told her team last week not to pack light for the final three rounds of the ODAC tournament in Salem, Virginia.
The Hornets had every intention of playing beyond the quarterfinal round.
“I told the kids to pack your bag and pack it full. We’re not going to be there just for Friday,” Smeltzer-Kraft said. “They were genuine in their belief that they could win. They felt like they could break the bracket apart.”
As the eighth seed, the odds were stacked against the Hornets, who had never won a game in Salem before. It didn’t matter.
Not against top-seeded Guilford, a team Shenandoah beat 52-49 to advance to the semifinals..
Not against Randolph-Macon, the fourth seed in the tourney and a team that had beaten the Hornets twice during the regular season. Shenandoah won that game 58-41.
And not against Washington & Lee in the title game. The Hornets rolled to a 68-53 victory over the third seed, winning the first ODAC tournament crown in program history and punching a ticket to the NCAA tournament.
They are the lowest seed to ever win the ODAC tourney and head to Pennsylvania this weekend to take on DeSales in the opening round. The Bulldogs are 25-2 and champions of the MAC Freedom conference tournament.
“The mindset of our team heading into the tournament was very optimistic,” junior guard Shannon Kuhn said. “We were coming off big wins and feeling confident in our ability to compete at a level to beat the top teams in our conference.”
Kuhn said that proving the doubters wrong made the memorable run through the tournament that much more special.
“What makes it more special is that no one believed in us,” Kuhn said. “We not only won, but we made history in each game, which shows that no team should be underestimated.”
This is a team that was 12-13 at the end of an up-and-down regular season. The Hornets head into the NCAA Tournament having won their last six games, including three back-to-back-to-back in the conference tourney.
“It’s a blur in some ways, but it’s exciting nonetheless,” Smeltzer-Kraft said. “It’s about peaking at the right moment. We were under .500 at the end of the regular season but we were starting to figure out what we were capable of. We got really lucky in terms of timing and urgency. An opportunity jumped in front of us and we seized it.”
The difficult moments the Hornets endured during the regular season paid off. They went into the conference tournament stronger because of them.
“Going through stretches where wins were hard to come by are always tough,” Kuhn said. “We struggled at times, but our determination to prove we can compete with the best teams prevailed. We played with a chip on our shoulders each we played because we knew our opponents looked down on us. I believe that gave us the edge to come away with the title.”
The resiliency of the Hornets doesn’t surprise Smeltzer-Kraft in the slightest.
“I think this is true of a lot of student-athletes. They are oddly resilient,” Smeltzer-Kraft said. “We ask so much of our student-athletes, academically and athletically, and they keep coming back. They believed in themselves and saw there is a purpose to showing up every day and not just going through the motions.”
Defense has fueled the success of the Hornets, who are allowing a little under 60 points per game (57.5). During their six-game win streak, they have given up 50 or more only twice.
“If you told me at the beginning of the year that we would struggle to score and not have a ton of kids filling up the stat sheet, but that we would be able to get stops on command in February, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Smeltzer-Kraft said. “The kids have bought in and are committed to playing great defense.”
The interesting thing about that is Smeltzer-Kraft was more offensive-minded during her playing days at Drew.
“”I didn’t play a lick of defense as a player,” Smeltzer-Kraft said with a laugh. “It’s funny to see what I talk about more now. I almost had to have a reality check with myself sometimes.”
Kuhn will tell you the Hornets are playing the best defense she’s seen in her career, at least when it’s mattered most.
“The whole year our defense struggled against the top offenses in the league, but down the stretch, we figured it out and became one of the best defensive teams I’ve seen in my career at Shenandoah.”
Shenandoah took Monday off after the grind of three games in three days in the ODAC tournament. The Hornets leave Thursday for the NCAA Tournament believing anything is possible after what they just accomplished.
“The glass ceiling above us continues to break,” Smeltzer-Kraft said. “We want our players to enjoy this and have no regrets while doing it. These are opportunities that don’t come around all of the time. We are going in feeling like we have something else to prove.”
Kuhn plans to do everything she can to help her team make another statement.
“We still have so much to prove because we will always be the underdog in every game,” Kuhn said. “The ODAC is not an easy conference to play in and we need to prove that.”
And though the Hornets aren’t just happy to be here, they want to savor this opportunity.
“As a child, you dream of something like this but never expect it to happen until it does. It’s an unbelievable feeling,” Kuhn said.