|Madison Temple is the only player to start on both the 2016 and 2019 teams, but even her role has evolved.
Thomas More athletics photo
By Adam Turer
It was always going to be like this -- confetti raining down, a sea of blue-and-white clad fans celebrating a national championship.
We get three more years of this?!
When Thomas More’s four seniors capped their freshman season with a title back in 2016, it felt like the program was in the midst of becoming a dynasty. The Saints won the title in 2015, later vacated by the NCAA, and advanced to the sectional final the year before that.
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But the last two seasons ended in heartbreaking losses, and the quartet of Madison Temple, Shelby Rupp, Kelly Clapper, and Michaela Ware entered their final season with unfinished business.
They have been chasing the euphoria of that Monday night in Indianapolis for the past three years.
The Saints went from dominating the PAC to playing a nomadic schedule against some of the toughest competition D-III has to offer. When they lost in last year’s national semifinals to eventual champion Amherst, it didn’t feel like a dramatic upset.
Expectations for the 2018-19 season were unpredictable. How would the Saints respond to the grind of a schedule that featured just seven home games, and contests against seven ranked opponents? Would those foes focus their defense on slowing Temple and forcing the rest of the Saints to beat them?
Thirty-one victories and zero losses later, the Saints are on their way to completing their mission. The seniors have been drawing on the lessons they learned as freshmen, trying to emulate that strong senior class.
“The leadership our freshman year was unbelievable,” said Rupp. “It was awesome having those seniors there to pick us up when we needed them to. I think that always helps a team.”
Rupp, who earned all-region honors this week, worked her way into the starting lineup as a senior. She has nearly doubled her scoring average, up to 12.2 points per game, and is second on the team with 7.3 rebounds per game.
Clapper rarely saw action as a freshman, and her minutes have increased each season since. This year, she play the valuable role of energizer off of the bench, using her speed and quickness to disrupt opposing offenses. She has realized that every player has a role, and that as a senior she needs to set a tone for her teammates.
“That’s what Thomas More is all about, coming together as a team on and off the court. Now I’m showing more by example and being a vocal leader, both on and off the court,” she said. “On the court, I’m pushing everyone. It’s about keeping the culture.”
Ware has had the most interesting journey. She saw limited time as a freshman, then started nearly every game at point guard as a sophomore. A brutal knee injury in the preseason cost her her entire junior season. This year, she is back in a bench role. Her positive attitude through it all has been inspiring to her teammates.
“I went from being a starter, to injured, to coming off the bench and I feel like my role has been just as important every single year,” said Ware. “Just pushing my teammates and continuing to work hard every single day at practice to get us where we need to be.”
Playing alongside 2016 national Player of the Year Sydney Moss and future All-American Abby Owings allowed Temple to hone her game without the immediate pressure of stardom. But the Great Lakes Region Player of the Year has been the show and the showstopper this season for the Saints. She understands that her role goes beyond the ridiculous box scores (23.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 5.7 assists per game) that she puts up nightly.
“I’ve tried to become more of a vocal leader. In high school, I was always more lead by example. I realized the importance of having great vocal leaders because we had great vocal leaders when I was a freshman with Sam Cady, Alexa Santamaria, and Sydney Moss,” said Temple. “After losing all of them, it definitely changed how our team was culture-wise, just to not have that voice. I feel like for myself, I’ve focused a lot on being more vocal. Even if I’m doing bad, I try to make sure that everyone else comes together and remains focused and confident in one another.”
Temple was the only one of the four to see action in the 2016 national title game, starting and contributing 10 points and nine rebounds. Her senior teammates now understand that it takes a different level of confidence to excel on the biggest stage.
“We just need to stay in the game and do what we do best and do what we’ve been doing all year not overthink anything,” said Rupp.” The underclassmen are so good at coming together with us and staying together as a team.”
The Saints have been tested this postseason. They needed a huge second half comeback to defeat Trine in the second round, and a fourth quarter rally to advance past Washington U. in the sectional final.
“[We’ve shown] pride, a lot of heart,” said head coach Jeff Hans. “I’ve said this a lot the last couple of weeks, how resilient we are. Nobody wants it to end.”
With four seniors all contributing in impactful ways, the Saints remain calm when faced with adversity. They’ve done that all season long, whether through extended road trips, hostile environments, and facing top competition. When it came down to crunch time the past two Saturdays, the Saints’ poise shined through.
That all starts with the seniors who began their career at the pinnacle, four players who aim to finish by leading Thomas More back to the top.
“I think their maturity, how they’ve really matured as young ladies, is showing throughout this season. We’re gonna miss ‘em when that time comes. Hopefully that’s after two more wins,” said Hans. “What they’re going to do in the future, that’s the most important thing for us. It’s how they’re going to represent Thomas More now, but also when they graduate. We’re going to be proud of them.”