What does an athletic victory for a college signify when the majority of the players are hirelings in no way identified with the real life of the school?
…The Berea Citizen (May 7, 1903)
BUNKY HARKLEROAD, Head Coach
Bunky Harkleroad enters his seventh season as head coach of the Berea College women’s basketball program with an overall record of 110-60. During Coach Harkleroad’s tenure the women’s basketball program has accomplished a great deal, and an unprecedented level of excitement surrounds the program.
Three seasons ago Coach Harkleroad introduced a new style of basketball to Kentucky, a vigorous, attacking style based on pressure defense, a fast-breaking, three-point shooting offense, and fearless offensive rebounding. The rest is history. The Lady Mountaineers have set many NAIA national scoring records while leading the nation in scoring (at all levels of women’s college basketball) in all three campaigns.
“At Berea we have attempted to become the most exciting basketball program around,” he says. “Our goals are to include as many student athletes as possible, to make the experience fun for our student athletes, and to be competitive on the national NAIA level. We want to develop outstanding camaraderie and team chemistry while winning games and entertaining our fans.”
Following the 2005-2006 season Coach Harkleroad was voted KIAC Coach of the Year for the fourth time in the last five seasons. Last year’s Lady Mountaineers won 26 games and lost just 6, setting a school record for victories for the third year in a row. Winning the KIAC regular season title and postseason tournament earned the Lady Mountaineers their first-ever trip to the NAIA-II national tournament in Sioux City, Iowa.
“Getting to the national tournament was huge. We belonged there, but I believe we can get better. This year we’re playing one of the strongest NAIA-II schedules in the country. We expect to be battle-tested before we begin conference play in January. It will be crucial for us to improve each game. If we can get through November and December healthy and strong, with good attitudes, we’ll be well prepared to face our traditional rivals in the KIAC.”
When Coach Harkleroad is not on the court, he is a Special Education teacher for the Berea Independent School System, where he has been employed for the last nine years. His wife Shan and their three children, Tory (12), Tahni (11), and Ty (8), reside in Berea. Tahni is currently the Lady Mounties top recruit for the class of 2013-2014.
SUMMER SMITH, Assistant Coach
Summer Smith returns to the Berea bench for her third season as assistant coach. A fan favorite as a Lady Mountaineer player, Smith is now building an impressive resume as a coach. She is appreciated as a vital contributor to the team’s recent success. According to Coach Bunky Harkleroad, “Summer Smith has a natural talent for coaching, and she can go anywhere she wants to go with it. Right now, we’re happy she has chosen to stay in Berea. She’s very important to our team.”
Coach Smith will help to develop the skills of both the post and the perimeter players while assisting with practice, conditioning, game management, scouting, and recruiting. “Coach Smith has a solid understanding of both the mental and the physical aspects of the game of basketball, and she understands our System inside and out,” Coach Harkleroad adds. “She knows what it takes to win and knows how to communicate.”
PROLOGUE: BUNKY HARKLEROAD INTERVIEW, SEPTEMBER 2006
“The national tournament was a learning experience. We’re here, and now we want to get deeper. We made our kids watch some games after we got beat and asked, ‘What are they doing?’ We determined that those other teams weren’t that much better than us but they were a little bit better than us. Going into last year I felt because of Bethel’s presence, everybody else in the conference getting better, that we had to have a great record to get any kind of recognition. And that barely worked. Now we’re to the point where we need to be battle-tested and scarred before we get to conference play, because ratings matter and because it increases our chances of winning our conference tournament.
“We want to be one of the top programs in the nation in NAIA Division II. We get there by doing the little things that we talked about and we noticed in the tournament. Our passes must be sharper, our shooting more accurate, our dribbling lower. We want to be stronger and deeper. If we can improve our overall game, improve our game just a hair in each area, but be better at our strong points too, we’ll be in great shape.
“There will be no changes in Berea’s style of play. We will continue to play The System.
“The System gives more players an opportunity to be on the team, to be an intercollegiate team member. And The System is conducive to overall skill development. If I’m a player who has marginal ability, I go to Berea and I’m spending the same amount of time the All-American is on my overall game and getting better, and I’m going to improve more than I would at any other school in our league. We spend most of our time passing, shooting, dribbling. That’s another aspect of it that’s overlooked. It’s one reason our teams have done so well after Christmas. Those quality repetitions add up.
“The System gives us another advantage because we have an identity. Our students and our fans seem to like it. We’re recognized. And our kids seem to enjoy what they’re doing. It’s less work if you enjoy it.
“In terms of advantages against other opponents, we have to be careful with that, because some teams this year may be able to pick us apart. There’s no givens there. It’s not an advantage unless our shots are falling and we’re rebounding the basketball. Hopefully this year’s team will be much quicker than we’ve ever been, more skilled than we’ve ever been. We’re not going to be as big and meaty. There will be strength and inside presence issues we have to make sure are addressed.
“All the kids we lost were important. In terms of position-by-position ability levels, I think we gained more than we lost. But the players we had last year got results. The new kids have to prove themselves.
“Not having seen many of the top teams in the country, the legitimate Top 12, I expected to see a tournament that would have teams full of players that were Division I or NCAA transfers. I expected to see bigger, stronger, athletic kids. That was not the case. The NAIA-II women’s tournament turned out to be a tournament of NAIA-II basketball players. The tournament games were all well played games, fundamental games, nothing flashy, good shooting, good passing, excellent team defense, plus some physical, hard-nosed play. There were 5 or 6 kids out of the 300 kids in the tournament who could play a level up, but the tournament was less flashy and less transfer-oriented than I thought it would be.
“The biggest eye-opener was the knowledge that we belong here, we can do this. I honestly felt, and I think our players did too, that we were not far off, that we belong, but we need to get a little bit better. These were the lessons I begged our players to try to learn. We met, we talked about it, we watched multiple games. I said, ‘Here’s what I think, girls, I think you’re close. Watch how they do certain things.’
“I left it open-ended too. What are they doing that we’re not? I thought through our communication on the way back, at the banquet, in workouts last spring, there was a feeling of ‘We can do this.’ We’ve got to get a little faster, a little stronger, knock a little flab off our arms and just tighten up across the board. I hope that’s what we came away with.
“We proved we could get to the national tournament. Once you break that initial barrier, that’s big. I wasn’t sure we had the best team in the league last year. Two years ago we did. We suffered. When you suffer like that, you learn. It made us hungrier. It built a little character. Two years ago we caught some bad breaks and we had to sit and watch. But we realized, ‘We can do this.’ It was great to finally accomplish that. We talked and talked about it, we visualized it, but you can tell yourself that you can do something, you can believe in yourself, but until you actually do it, you never know. You may be 100% sure, but until you do it…
“Our schedule this year is one of the strongest NAIA Division II schedules in the country. It’s going to be exciting. It will be crucial to improve each game, to make an effort to learn when we fail, and figure out what it takes to get through it. If we can come through healthy and come through strong with good attitudes, it will make conference play a lot of fun.”p class="mediumbold" align="left">THE SEASON BEGINS
2006-07 will be the fourth season that Berea has employed “The System.” There is, to my knowledge, just one other college women’s basketball team using it: Olivet Nazarene University (NAIA-I). The two teams actually met last season, at ONU, with the home school prevailing. Coach Bunky Harkleroad believes that The System lends itself better to women's ball than to men's.
Under normal conditions it is very difficult to integrate 7 new players into a basketball team. It is easy only if you expect all the rookies to sit at the end of the bench and play only garbage minutes in one-sided games.
Bunky, on the other hand, wants all of them to (a) process a system that is contrary to the way they've been taught to play the game all their lives, and (b) play significant minutes.
What I saw in the preseason scrimmages was exactly what I expected to see. The System was hardly executed at all, on offense or defense. The freshmen were clueless and the sophomores appeared to have forgotten how to system and reverted back to traditional patterns. Only seniors De-An Watkins and Rebecca May seemed to know what they were doing.
But Bunky is too experienced to be discouraged, and so I, a fan, see no reason to be discouraged. When he chose to implement The System he chose a hard way to go. Only a very dedicated and energetic (but level-headed) coach can get a group of kids to execute it. He is that coach, and I believe that what he has done before, he will do again.
I appreciate how difficult The System is to coach. The process is tough, but Bunky chose it because the product is worth it.
1 Berea 90, King College 72 (November 3)
2 Berea 113, Montreat College 98 (November 4)
Berea's next games are with Lindsey Wilson College (away) and Warren Wilson College (home opener). I suggested that Lindsey Wilson play Warren Wilson, seemingly a logical matchup, but a game between them has not been scheduled.
Berea will have its hands full with Lindsey Wilson, an NAIA-1 school that is rife with scholarship players.
There are currently 16 Lady Mountaineers (9 holdovers and 7 newcomers). I believe this team has the potential to qualify for the NAIA-2 national tournament again despite losing the school's all-time assists leader, Crystal Davis, to graduation. They play some powerhouse teams in November and December, though, so I'm not predicting a repeat of last year's 26-6 record. If they win 20 I'll be thrilled. What counts is to win their conference tournament at the end of February. They'll definitely be battle-tested, because this year's schedule is the toughest in the history of the program.
Rebecca May, Berea's All-American forward, is a senior this year. She holds the national record for 3-pointers made in a season and every single-season and career Berea College scoring record. I can't imagine her breaking her national 3-pointer record again this season, because she'll be double- and triple-teamed to death. But all that does is create opportunities for Berea's other scorers. The points get scored regardless. At least that's the way it has worked so far.
These are the athletes everyone else has overlooked, but they've led the nation (at all levels of women's basketball) in scoring the last three years while going 21-8, 22-6, and 26-6 after NEVER winning twenty games in a season before. At their best they're uniquely exciting and fun to watch.
3 Berea 102, Lindsey Wilson College 81 (November 6)
Berea competes in Division II of the NAIA. NAIA Division-II regulations permit a team to carry a maximum of 6 scholarship players. Young athletes generally dislike the idea of “walking on” and will almost always enroll at a school that offers an athletic scholarship, forsaking any school that does not. Because Berea College has always chosen to grant no athletic scholarships, its athletes are those whom no other school has recruited.
Members of the Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference are obligated to play Berea, a KIAC team. But Berea has trouble scheduling games with non-KIAC teams. Coaches don’t want to play Berea because Berea does more than simply beat you despite inferior talent. The Lady Mountaineers’ style of play is not tremendously physical and they don’t play dirty, but their relentlessly aggressive, pedal-to-the-metal attack overwhelms their opponents. It frustrates, it demoralizes, it exhausts.
Occasionally Berea schedules games with NAIA-I opponents. NAIA-I teams may carry 12 scholarship players. You might look at it this way: the 12th best player on any NAIA-I team was, when she was recruited, considered a better player than Berea’s best player.
This makes Berea’s 102-81 conquest of perennial NAIA-1 powerhouse Lindsey Wilson College, in Lindsey Wilson’s gym, all the more remarkable. Lindsey Wilson teams have qualified for the NAIA-I national tournament in 4 of the last 8 seasons, and their last 3 teams amassed a collective 62-35 record.
Coach John Wethington's strategy of trying to neutralize Berea by substituting frequently himself did not work. The reason, I think, is that his players were not used to that. It seemed to frustrate them more than energize them.
Additionally, I have noticed that teams that defeat Berea are ones that decide to take all the easy two-point opportunities, but also to create three-point opportunities for themselves. Lindsey Wilson did not do that, and teams that have no perimeter offense almost always lose to Berea.
Amazingly, Berea beat Lindsey Wilson by 21 points while being outrebounded 61-35. The key for Berea was a merciless defensive intensity that forced 44 Lindsey Wilson turnovers. Berea’s victory brought to my mind the battle of Adowa (1896), when Abyssinian general Ras Makonnen, employing human-wave tactics, annihilated an Italian army that possessed an overwhelming advantage in firepower.
What impressed me particularly about this victory was that in the third game of the season the Lady Mountaineers played like a team that hated to lose. Their energy and intensity overwhelmed the opposition. It was a “character win,” for sure, where force of will prevailed.
4 Berea 107, Warren Wilson College 26 (November 8)
After Berea pulled ahead 36-0 at the 9-minute mark, Bunky abandoned The System, sat his best 11 players down, and sent out his worst 5 players to play conventional basketball the rest of the game. This helped keep the score down, but in fact the game was not as close as the score indicated.
Warren Wilson attempted 0 three-point shots and seemed bewildered whenever Berea launched a shot from beyond the arc. The Fighting Owls (yes, that really is their official nickname) might have done better if this game had been played in 1980.
No one was laughing. I recall, as many other fans surely did, that Berea was once this inept, and it wasn’t all that long ago. So although the game was one-sided, it provided food for thought. The next day I passed this along to Berea assistant coach Summer Smith:
Case History #1 : Chuck and Duck
After years of hard work, you fulfill a lifelong dream when you accept an invitation to coach basketball at a small four-year college. There is no room in your budget, however, to hire an assistant coach.
Your team consists of a group of students who want to play basketball but have no natural athletic talent. Moreover, your players have never developed any proficiency in the most basic skills of the game: dribbling, passing, shooting, and rebounding. When missed shots carom off the rim, your players duck.
For your season opener you drive your team hundreds of miles to lose 107-26 in a game that is not as close as the final score indicates.
What do you say to your team after the game?
Will you modify your expectations and standards downward? Why or why not? How will you measure success and failure this season?
5 Berea 105, Milligan College 89 (November 11)
A typical “System” game: Milligan’s Lady Buffaloes led 54-52 at the half, but Berea’s relentless attack wore them down in the second stanza. At around the 32-minute mark in games like this, the opposition starts missing easy layups, and that’s when you know they’re beaten. Berea keeps throwing fresh bodies out there, and eventually the opponent’s starters begin to wilt.
6 Berea 90, University of Virginia at Wise 80 (November 15)
Wise was Berea’s toughest opponent so far, a national tournament qualifier last year. Once again Wise is nationally ranked and brought back 5 senior starters, including Rachel and Sarah Helton, college basketball’s most devastating twins. The game was played at Wise and shocked their fans, because this team defeated Berea at Berea’s homecoming last season. An electrifying contest, hard-fought but sportsmanlike all the way. The Wise fans were highly complimentary after the game.
7 Berea 103, Virginia Intermont College 91 (November 16)
Very similar to the Milligan game. Berea trailed the Lady Cobras by 1 at the half.
Next up will be Berea’s greatest test so far: Bryan College, at Bryan’s campus in Dayton, Tennessee. Bryan’s Lady Lions are also nationally ranked and are considered superior to Wise. (Heard of Dayton, Tennessee? It was the site of the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925! Anne and I are going down together, and we hope to view some of the historic sites. Dayton is about 210 miles south of Berea.)
8 Berea 82, Bryan College 100 (November 21)
Bryan dominated. Coach Bunky Harkleroad told me that Bryan was the best team he’s coached against in his seven years at Berea.
9 Berea 101, Tennessee Temple University 81 (November 30)
All 16 Berea players scored in this game.
10 Berea 111, Illinois Institute of Technology 93 (December 1)
Action-packed, tremendously exciting. Berea trailed 48-46 at the half. Six foot two center Toccara Gambrel of Berea cracked a rib and will be out until January. Gambrel is not a dominant center, but as one of Berea’s only 3 legitimate post players, she will be missed. Gambrel’s history is that she giveth (points, rebounds, and blocks) but also taketh away (by fouling, which allows the other team to catch its breath). She has not mastered the fine art of defending underneath without fouling. She is also the only mother on the team. Her 3-year-old son, fortunately, was spending the evening with his father and was not in the arena when she was injured.
11 Berea 82, Davenport University 93 (December 2)
This was Berea’s third game in 3 days, and the Lady Mountaineers didn’t have enough gas in the tank to defeat an excellent team from a tough conference, the WHAC (Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference).
When the epic history of this women's basketball season is written, it will have to include a chapter on Buttocksgate: the day the enraged mother of a Davenport College player attacked a Berea fan she accused of waggling his hindquarters while her daughter was attempting to shoot a free throw.
Because I was watching the court, I was not aware of the action in the stands. But after the game I interviewed the attacker, the attackee, and a couple of eyewitnesses. Here's what happened:
During the second half a matronly spectator approached Larry Shinn, who were sitting in the front row at center court. I don't know how she knew he was the college president. She complained to him about “the hecklers,” a group of mostly male students who stain their bodies blue and cheer en masse at most Berea games. At this time the hecklers were standing in the east end zone behind the basket.
The President left his seat and walked over to speak to the hecklers, with the complaining fan followed him. Before the President could speak, the fan confronted one of the hecklers and gave him a hard shove in the chest, almost knocking him off his feet.
The President ordered the fan to leave the arena. He escorted her out the door. (Later she sneaked back in.) The President returned, visibly unhappy, and sat with athletic director Mike Ross in the end zone. I did not see him speak to the hecklers.
After the game the ejected fan identified herself to me as the mother of a Davenport College player. She told me that the heckler she attacked had “pulled down his pants” and waggled his buttocks while her daughter was attempting to shoot a free throw. The angry mother was uncomplimentary (in the extreme) about Berea College and its students.
One thing I know for sure: none of the hecklers displayed his bare buttocks in the arena. What the disgruntled fan meant, I'm sure, was that the shirtless heckler was wearing trousers that were low on his hips, with the tops of his boxer shorts visible, like maybe 90% of teenage boys in America in the last decade.
Eyewitnesses I spoke to told me that one of the hecklers indeed turned his back and shook his rump while the free throws were being shot. However, he did not “pull down his pants” before doing this, and he was not the individual whom the belligerent mother accosted!
12 Berea 79, Brescia University 91 (December 5)
Berea got trounced. But I was gratified to learn the Lady Mountaineers have a secret weapon, Charlie Hanna.
“They had 12 straight points on 3-pointers alone to start the second half,” said freshman Charlie Hanna of the Lady Mounties.
That's a quote from Phil Miller's story on the Illinois Tech game in the December 5 issue of The Pinnacle, the Berea College student newspaper. I know Berea has a lot of players, but I must have missed Charlie. What number does she wear?
13 Berea 88, Lindsey Wilson College 80 (December 7)
Berea led 56-33 at the half, and then hung on despite a scary stretch of just 8 points in the first 12 minutes of the 2nd half. This was their first win without Toccara Gambrel.
At this Berea’s last home game of 2006, a teenage girl approached the Berea coaches. She explained that she was a senior basketball player at Morristown (TN) East High School, whose jacket she was wearing. Morristown East played “The System,” she said, and for that reason she was interested in enrolling at Berea next fall. The coaches spent a lot of time talking to her, as they do to all prospective players, and introduced her to members of the current team. After the game coach Bunky Harkleroad tried to learn more about her background. Curiously, none of Bunky’s contacts in east Tennessee knew anything about her, and no high school could verify her enrollment. Furthermore, there is no evidence that Morristown East has ever utilized The System!
Who was she? It’s a real head-shaker. She is now referred to as “The Phantom.”
14 Berea 120, Pikeville College 85 (December 9)
This was Berea’s best performance of the year, with the team executing The System to perfection against a tough Division I team on the road. The 205 points set a record for the Pikeville gym (men or women). With Stephanie Corry incapacitated by a sprained ankle, Berea played with just 14 players.
Berea is now 11-3 and again leads the nation in scoring, averaging 98 points per game so far. All 3 losses were at the hands of quality teams: Bryan (the 13th-ranked Division II team in the nation), Davenport (a Div-II national tournament team last year), and Brescia (a Division I team).
Berea will play just one game between now and January 6, on December 18 versus nationally ranked perennial NAIA-II powerhouse Doane College. The game will be played in St Thomas (U.S. Virgin Islands), and yes, I’ll be there.
Berea’s 2006-2007 season is almost half over. Berea’s greatest strength, so far, has been its willingness to play 40 minutes with intense, pedal-to-the-metal aggressiveness. By forcing a fast tempo and wearing out the opposition the Lady Mountaineers have won games in which they shot poorly or committed too many fouls or turnovers.
15 Berea 90, Doane College 94 (December 18)
The Island Time Shootout in St Thomas (U.S. Virgin Islands) was conceived as an 8-team tournament that would showcase some of the top small-college teams in America. Berea was originally scheduled to play 2 games in St Thomas, but when Hartwick College decided (at the last minute) not to send their team to the Virgin Islands, Berea lost one of its games. Thomas More College was also left with just one game, but when asked, Thomas More declined to play Berea.
Berea versus Doane was by far the most thrilling of the 8 games played in St Thomas. The furious action left fans gasping. Berea fell behind by double digits, fought their way back into the game, and then pulled ahead by 4 points at the half. When Doane answered with a 17-0 run to begin the second half, it looked as if Berea might sustain the same type of lopsided defeat they suffered in the NAIA-II national tournament in Sioux City last March. But the Lady Mountaineers regrouped, chipped away at Doane’s lead, caught them, and nosed ahead by a point (90-89) with 1:20 left to play. Thereafter Doane’s shots fell and Berea’s didn’t. Rebecca May’s 3-point basket at the buzzer was disallowed, but even if it had counted Berea would still have lost (94-93).
No one in the arena had seen a team like Berea, and the mass substitutions and relentless 3-point shooting astonished the multitude. The stands began to buzz when Berea used all of its 14 active players (Stephanie Corry and Toccara Gambrel were injured and couldn’t play) in the first 3 minutes. One Doane parent remarked to Beverly Harkleroad (Bunky’s mother), “If any of our players threw up a shot like that, she’d be on the bench immediately, even if it went in!” With a marked disadvantage in size (without Gambrel, no Berea player stands as tall as 5-10, while Doane features seven women 5-10 or taller) and talent, Berea pushed Doane to the wall. To their credit, the Tigers prevailed.
After the game Doane’s Ashley Howard crowed loudly (to the obvious disgust of her teammates) about her 32 points, but for some strange reason she didn’t have much to say about her 8 turnovers. Berea’s press forced 28 Doane turnovers in all, a typical night’s work.
Doane played 10 players. Their starters averaged 26 minutes, which is probably less than usual for them. Howard played the most, 31. The 10th player got 7 minutes. Berea made hay, as usual, when Doane rotated their starters out. They replaced the starters one or two at a time at about 2-minute intervals starting about 7 minutes into each half.
Doane was bigger than Berea and more athletic, but they also exposed Berea’s limitations. Berea has only 1 player, Shavannah Brinson, whom you would describe as quick, and she's strictly a 2-guard because she's not a good passer. On the other hand, she's way too small (5-3) to shoot a good percentage over big players. Bunky is struggling to find the right role for her.
(Note: Berea’s Shavannah Brinson is not the same person as Savannah Brinson, the mother of LeBron James’s love child.)
Now that Crystal Davis has graduated, Berea doesn’t run a fast break because they're not fast enough getting down the floor. Berea had the most success against Doane when they were aggressive and running at them, and if they had a REAL fast break they'd have won. Berea’s running offense and full-court pressure defense were wearing Doane down, but Berea couldn't sustain the intensity for 40 minutes. When Berea’s foot was off the gas, Doane surged ahead.
Doane's size advantage showed in their plus-11 rebound margin. Berea ended up fouling them 23 times as they drove to the hoop after breaking the press, and they hit 24 of their 30 free throws. All the fouls gave them the opportunity to catch their breath. Often teams are too worn out by Berea to hit their free throws, but Doane sucked it up.
As Bunky always will in close games against tough opponents, in the last few minutes he set aside The System and kept his best 5 on the floor. No one, coaches or players, wants to sacrifice victories on the altar of substitutions.
Ahead 90-89 with 1:20 to play, Bunky got what he wanted: the ball in the hands of his best player, Rebecca May. But on consecutive possessions May passed out of bounds (an extreme rarity for her) and missed a makeable 2-pointer. Her final shot (a three-pointer) went in but was disallowed and too late anyway. May had THREE made baskets disallowed, the first two because a whistle for a foul blew a split second before she launched the shot.
The way I saw the game, Berea didn't lose it, Doane won it. It represented progress to me because Berea played Doane so much tougher than they did Aquinas in March and Bryan in November. After the game the debate raged: if you had to lose, would you rather lose by 4 or by 40? The players and coaches were divided.
For the fans it was a great game, very exciting. The issue all the fans clearly recognized was whether Berea, clearly the least talented of the two teams, could defeat a superior team using heart and a System that makes them more than the sum of their parts.
As he does every year, Bunky will use the Christmas break to sit down and analyze, then make adjustments. All his teams have played better in the second half of the season. Although there are clearly issues, all four of Berea's losses have been to teams vastly superior in talent. But each one of those games was winnable had the Lady Mountaineers brought their “A” game, and they should have won one of the four at least. Berea has won all the games they've played against equal or slightly better talent, and scheduled only one clearly inferior team (Warren Wilson).
DETOUR: THE ADVENTURES OF SUMMER SMITH (1)
I was invited to accompany the team to their Virgin Islands tournament this year. I confess, however, that I felt a chill of apprehension when I saw our itinerary. We were scheduled to fly from Louisville to Chicago O’Hare, of all places, and thence to San Juan and St. Thomas. That meant three connections, and one of them through America’s busiest hub in wintry December. And we’d have to begin our trip by leaving Berea at 3:00 a.m. to catch our first flight, which would depart Louisville at 6:00.
Assistant coach Summer Smith, on the other hand, would be undertaking what promised to be a much more sensible journey. Four of the Berea players (Heidi Diep, Miranda Hales, Calloray Howard, and Heather Hutchins) weren’t able to leave early enough to travel with the main group, so Summer agreed to shepherd them to St Thomas later in the day. Their first flight, direct to Miami and thence to St Thomas, was scheduled to depart Louisville at 11:30.
To my relief, our party of 17 encountered no problems despite our complicated itinerary. Each flight boarded, departed, and arrived on time. When we got to St Thomas at 4:00 that afternoon, we were reunited with all of our luggage. Not a bag was lost.
Summer’s party, on the other hand, had a less satisfactory experience.
It wasn’t raining, sleeting, or snowing when they arrived in Louisville. But for never-explained reasons their 11:30 flight didn’t board until 4:00. Disinterested American Airlines functionaries in Louisville assured Summer that her party would make their 6:00 connection in Miami, and they almost did. After deplaning in Miami and racing from one end of the airport to the other as if driving for a layup on a fast break, they learned that they’d missed their connecting flight by just five minutes.
The missed flight was the last of the day from Miami to St Thomas. With subsequent flights fully booked during the in-season, Summer feared that she wouldn’t be able to get to the Virgin Islands even after an overnight stay in Miami. She asked that her party be rerouted to and housed in San Juan, a shorter hop to St Thomas and one with seats available the next day.
When they arrived in San Juan at 11:45, there was no one to greet them (or anyone else) at the American Airlines customer service desk. In desperation they made their way down to the baggage claim area, where none of the American Airlines personnel had been notified of their arrival in San Juan and no food or hotel vouchers had been arranged. The baggage handlers spoke little English, but, feeling sorry for the bedraggled group, tried to phone various supervisors. All the supervisors were attending an American Airlines Christmas party and refused to pick up!
Summer’s party spent a supremely uncomfortable night trying to grab some shuteye on the carpeted ramp in front of the baggage carousel in the San Juan airport, which was air-conditioned to freezing discomfort. At 2:00 a.m. they were wakened by passengers from an incoming flight, who mistook them for a group of homeless vagrants.
At 6:00 some hung-over American Airlines employee staggered in, issued the unfortunates some food vouchers, and found them seats on what appeared to be a glorified crop duster bound for St Thomas. In St Thomas, of course, no one had any idea where her checked baggage was. By 1:00 the forlorn party finally made its way to the Wyndham Sugar Bay Resort, where the rest of the team was enjoying fun in the sun. Summer and the girls spent their day in their filthy sweatshirts and jeans. But their saga had a happy ending of sorts: most, but not all, of the luggage showed up late that evening.
DETOUR: THE ADVENTURES OF SUMMER SMITH (2)
On the day of departure Summer and her traveling companions were booked on the early flight from St Thomas to Miami, leaving at 8:00 a.m. The flight boarded on time, but the plane needed to be tugged onto the runway before it could take off. In true “island time” fashion, no towing vehicle bothered to show up. By the time the plane got into the air, it was too late to connect with the flight Summer had booked from Miami to Louisville.
After Summer’s group deplaned in Miami and raced at top speed to the other end of the airport only to miss their flight to Louisville, they had had enough of American Airlines. Summer persuaded the AA customer service rep to route her group to Louisville on Delta. To get to the Delta terminal, however, they had to pass through security, and as rerouted passengers they were required to enter a glassed-in holding area for high-risk travelers. While they were waiting to be patted down and searched, they were treated to the spectacle of an escaped criminal eluding federal officers who were escorting him onto the plane. While Summer and the Berea players, nobody’s idea of “high risk,” looked on, passengers screamed hysterically while grim-looking men raced past with weapons drawn.
Ultimately Summer and company got to Louisville (via Atlanta) around 10:00, just seven hours or so later than they had been originally scheduled to arrive. Was their luggage waiting? Of course not: it was still in Miami. Naturally, those of us who had been routed through Chicago arrived on time and retrieved our luggage without a hitch.
But Summer figured she could wait for her suitcase. After all, mostly it contained just light clothing suitable to be worn in the tropics. And sure enough, the next day as Summer was shopping in Lexington, she got a call from a Delta rep in Kentucky. He had her luggage, he said, and would bring it to her house. He called three times to figure out where she lived. When he didn’t call a fourth time, Summer figured that the delivery had been made.
Summer returned home at 7:00 that evening. As she got out of her car she could see her suitcase waiting on the porch. A step or two later she could SMELL her suitcase.
Before she left St Thomas Summer had purchased at the duty-free shop in the airport three one-liter bottles of Cruzan rum, distilled in the U.S. Virgin Islands, to bring home as Christmas gifts. But because the U.S. Transportation Security Agency doesn’t allow passengers to bring liquids onto an airplane any more, Summer was forced to stash the rum in her checked baggage. Although she wrapped the bottles as carefully as she could in several layers of clothing, during the tortuous trip back to Kentucky two of them shattered. Summer’s suitcase was soaked, and all her apparel was saturated. Worse, the colored fabrics had bled onto the whites.
Summer’s last words as she described these events to me later were, “It makes me frustrated to think about it. It was an experience I never want to repeat.” I believe it!
16 Berea 96, Indiana University-Southeast 80 (January 6)
This was a very gratifying conquest of the Lady Grenadiers, everyone’s choice as the team to beat in the KIAC this year, and it was more remarkable because Berea played the game banged up and shorthanded. But Berea turned over the ball just 11 times, a season low, while once again forcing a frenetic tempo that wore out the opposition.
The three-week layoff was not helpful to the team. Stephanie Corry and Toccara Gambrel weren’t sufficiently recovered from their December injuries to play against IUS, and Berea’s two remaining post players, Sarah Hughes and Calloray Howard, played with physical problems (a bad foot and a bad knee, respectively) that may be more serious than anyone thought. And coach Bunky Harkleroad suspended Shavannah Brinson and Erika Thomas for this game for violating team rules.
Then LaShondra Gray found out that she won’t be playing basketball again this season due to poor grades. She’s still enrolled in school, but on academic probation. That’s another thing that makes Berea College different. Gray is second on the team in points and first in steals, two essential components of Berea’s game, and most programs would wink at the academic deficiencies of a player that productive. But at Berea you’ve got to earn your right to play by performing in the classroom.
Remember Rebekah Klee, a sophomore cornerstone of Berea’s record-setting team of 2005-2006? Shortly after the season ended Klee got married to a fellow Berea College student, and in December she delivered an 8-pound baby boy, Robert Michael Thomas. Rebekah Klee Thomas is still enrolled at Berea College. For obvious reasons she’s not playing basketball this season, but she hopes to be back on the hardwood next season. Klee is one of four sisters who have played college basketball, and she’s got two younger sisters who are high school basketball players.
17 Berea 79, Asbury College 55 (January 8)
In an unusual switch, it was Asbury forcing the tempo in this game, implementing a slowed down, four-corners approach that held the score down but precluded any chance they might have had to win the game.
The only explanation for Asbury's play I can come up with is that their foremost goal was not to outscore Berea, but to implement a scheme whereby the team would execute, on every offensive possession, a certain number of passes before attempting a shot. This would account for their team's seemingly inexplicable refusal to drive to the hoop for open layups on many possessions. That the team adhered successfully to this rigid discipline accounts for the odd demeanor of coaches and players after the game. They seemed well satisfied with their performance, although even their own fans were mystified.
To be charitable, Asbury coach Debi Powell may have been trying to do what Brescia did to defeat Berea, but I am not convinced. Although it seemed obvious to everyone from the opening minutes that Asbury could not defeat Berea with this style of play, Asbury never deviated from its game plan from tipoff to final buzzer. I can only conclude that winning the game was not the coach's primary objective, and that was why she showed little frustration or disappointment while getting thumped by double digits.
After the game coach Bunky Harkleroad told me, “I was disappointed with the game for the most part but glad we won and glad we saw that type of game plan. Her kids are well coached. If their goal was to frustrate us, then it was hugely successful. If their goal was to win, which you would think is the main objective, then they failed badly. Being down 10-12 points in a slow game is similar to being down 20-25 in a fast one. I think they have the players to run with us and beat us. It was one of the weirdest games I've ever been a part of.”
18 Berea 120, Midway College 111 (in overtime, January 11)
This game, the most exciting Berea has played this season, set a new NAIA record (both D-1 and D-2) for points scored by both teams, breaking the old record of 230 set by Berea (117) and Wilberforce University (113) in 2004.
Berea led throughout regulation but could not shake a determined Midway squad, which was playing at home after a four-week layoff. With Berea leading 101-98, Midway freshman guard Katie Peterson nailed a three-pointer at the buzzer to send the game into overtime. But after the teams traded baskets for the overtime period's first three minutes, Berea surged ahead to stay.
The Lady Mountaineers played without forward Sarah Hughes, who went onto the disabled list with what was finally diagnosed as a stress fracture in her left foot. Hughes had started all but one game, and her scoring and rebounding will be sorely missed. She’ll be out at least two weeks. Luckily for Berea, center Toccara Gambrel returned to the lineup after missing six games with a broken rib. At 6-2 Gambrel is Berea’s only player taller than 5-9, and she played big against Midway. In 11 minutes she had 4 points, 6 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 blocks, and 3 steals. Her emphatic rejection in overtime of a shot attempt by Midway’s Ashley Parker, who burned the Lady Mountaineers for 27 points and 17 rebounds, turned the tide in Berea’s favor.
Stephanie Corry, trying to come back from a December ankle sprain, was able to log just 36 seconds. Unsurprisingly, however, she did launch a three-point attempt.
19 Berea 89, Spalding University 85 (January 13)
The Lady Mountaineers cannot win unless they play with full-bore aggression. Just 40 hours removed from “the battle of Midway,” Berea came out flat and trailed 23-9 after 10 minutes. With 3 minutes to play the Lady Mountaineers were still behind, 67-70, but then they reached down for something extra and found it. Rebecca Mayshowed the way with 9 points in the final 1:53.
With 8 rebounds, board-crashing 5-5 senior guard De-An Watkins became the fourth woman in Berea College history to record 500 career rebounds. She’ll be honored before Berea’s next game.
For some unknown reason Spalding University changed its mascot this year. They used to be the Pelicans, but now they’re the Golden Eagles. The administrators who decreed this change, which was not supported by the alumni nor the current student body, must have wanted Spalding to be more like their KIAC foes the Alice Lloyd Eagles, the Asbury Eagles, and the Midway Eagles. Will the Berea Mountaineers, the Indiana-Southeast Grenadiers, and the St Louis Pharmacy Eutectics follow suit? I hope not!
It was good to encounter once again Spalding's greatest fan, the man they call “Nixon.” Before the tipoff Nixon told me, “I gave our girls a pep talk. You're doomed!” For a while (too long) it looked as if he might be right!
Berea is now 15-4, one win better than they were last season after 19 games, even though they have more injured players, are playing a tougher schedule, shooting worse, and turning the ball over more frequently than they did in 2005-06.
20 Berea 82, Alice Lloyd College 91 (January 16)
Berea’s defeat by the Alices, shocking because it occurred at home, underscored some important points. This season there is parity in the KIAC, with any team (with the exception of STLCOP) capable of getting hot and winning the conference championship. Without LaShondra Gray and Sarah Hughes the Lady Mountaineers have enough talent to win the KIAC, but not enough talent to dominate. They cannot, as they thought they could, win merely by stepping onto the court. Against Alice Lloyd, Berea did not play with maximum intensity for forty minutes. That was a fatal mistake.
With seven new players on the team, last year’s championship means nothing. This team, which had figured out how to win with Gray and Hughes, now must relearn how to win without them. As coach Mike Krzyzewski recently observed, “Young teams have to learn how to win. Just because they're at Duke doesn't mean they inherit winning. You inherit money. You don't inherit winning.”
The Lady Mountaineers are in the curious position of playing “The System,” which is predicated on shooting, as one of the poorest-shooting college basketball teams (by percentage) in the United States. That they have won as many games as they have is a tribute to their usual willingness to play more aggressively than their opponents.
21 Berea 104, St Louis College of Pharmacy 78 (January 27)
Berea launched 80 3-point attempts, just one less than their national record, in overcoming the Eutectics at their gym, affectionately known as “The Pillbox.” 24 of them went in, with Jenna Lowe accounting for 9 (in 19 attempts). That tied Rebecca May’s Berea College record.
Lowe connected on 9 of 19 3-point field goal attempts. “It was an amazing experience to come that close to breaking a school record held by such a good shooter,” she told me. “I can only thank my teammates for trying so hard to get me the ball and rooting me on from the sidelines to keep shooting. If it weren't for them, it wouldn't have happened.”
Lowe played 20 minutes against STLCOP and added 5 rebounds, 2 assists, and a steal to her 27 points. According to coach Bunky Harkleroad, “Jenna is a good athlete who is capable of being a big game shooter. In addition to her 9 threes, Jenna had several shots that went in and out, and that could have made her day that much more impressive. Her confidence is going to be a big key for us during the remainder of the season and in years to come.”
STLCOP never quit, but with just 7 players on their active roster, the gallant Eutectics were overwhelmed. Anticipating a fast-paced game, athletic director Jill Jokerstwas concerned about keeping the STLCOP players hydrated. Their secret weapon, a quantity of golden-hued Gatorade kept courtside in a plastic “specimen” container, startled a few of the Lady Mountaineers but provided no advantage for the Eutectics in the end.
Heidi Diep, bedeviled by a kidney stone, was too ill to endure the 7-hour bus trip. She was, at least, spared the sight of the “secret weapon.”
Cheering for Berea were Dr Steve Tamari (of Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville), his 7-year-old daughter Amal, and 3 wide-eyed SIUE graduate students from Hyderabad, India. None of them had ever seen anything like “The System!”
Berea’s next two weeks will feature the hotly-anticipated rematch with Midway, then a challenging sequence of three road games in five days (Alice Lloyd, Asbury, and IUS). What February will bring is very uncertain at this point.
Senior De-An Watkins has joined the 500-rebound club. That’s a remarkable accomplishment for a 5-5 point guard. If she doesn’t get hurt, Watkins will finish her career third in rebounds and second in assists on Berea’s all-time list.
After noting Berea’s 80 3-point attempts against STLCOP, one courtside cynic remarked, “That’s why De-An gets 500 rebounds.”
My reply was, “Not exactly. It's why she gets rebound OPPORTUNITIES.”
Berea's second-rotation point guard this year, freshman Annbruce Madden, hasn't learned (yet) to follow the shot, and she's not getting rebounds.
22 Berea 79, Midway College 78 (February 1)
Berea got Sarah Hughes and Heidi Diep back, but these players were too far behind in their conditioning to affect this extremely close contest, which saw 17 ties and 17 lead changes. Berea scored the game’s final basket (a De-An Watkins layup) with 45 seconds left and somehow kept Midway off the scoreboard thereafter.
Coach Bunky Harkleroad likes to describe his team’s style as “controlled chaos.” This one had too little control, but the Lady Mountaineers won anyway.
Berea at Alice Lloyd College (February 6)
Postponed due to frightening weather. Rescheduled for February 19.
23 Berea 90, Asbury College 74 (February 8)
In 25 minutes Rebecca May contributed 37 points, 4 steals, 2 rebounds, a blocked shot, and an assist, with zero turnovers or personal fouls. This was her personal high for points.
Who instructed the Asbury PA announcer to play “Another One Bites The Dust” with one minute to play and Asbury TRAILING by 13 points? Although the Lady Eagles didn’t seem to appreciate it, I’d guess the person who gave the order was their own inscrutable coach, Debi Powell.
24 Berea 69, Indiana University-Southeast 81 (February 10)
The Lady Mountaineers were annihilated by the same IUS team they beat decisively at Berea just 5 weeks ago.
My own theory is that Berea shoots so poorly, percentage-wise, that some of this year’s newcomers may have subconsciously given up on The System, which is predicated on getting many shots into the air, and are reverting back to “traditional basketball” habits. When some players play The System and others don't, the result looks like a train wreck.
Coaches of traditional basketball have 2 “sticks” they use to motivate players: the threat to take away playing time, and the threat to revoke a player's scholarship. The latter is not operative at Berea, which grants no athletic scholarships. As for the former, Coach Bunky Harkleroad's philosophy of participation has always precluded sitting players on the bench for not playing well. (He does not hesitate to bench players for off-court infractions.)
When a player underachieves on the court, Bunky's approach has always been to chew her out, make her mad, and then send her back out there. But some of this year's group are not getting the message, and Bunky may be leaning toward sitting some of them down.
The Lady Mountaineers never win on talent. They succeed only with hustle and discipline within The System. If they all play hard and smart for 40 minutes, they give themselves a chance to win. Motivation is the key.
Stay tuned. Last year’s team was ravenously hungry to win the KIAC championship. Seniors Rebecca May and De-An Watkins are playing very well, but how hungry are this year’s underclassmen? This team is capable to beating any conference opponent and could recover.
25 Berea 83, Spalding University 91 (February 15)
The February 10 loss at IUS prompted some changes. As Coach Bunky Harkleroad put it, “The welfare state is going to come to an end.” He decided to keep Berea’s three productive players (Rebecca May, De-An Watkins, and Candy Walls) on the floor longer, with the unproductive spear-carriers subbing 2-in, 2-out. The team would continue to play “The System” on offense and defense, but the substitution patterns would change.
This new strategy did not produce a victory. May, Watkins, and Walls used their extra minutes superbly. (May had 20 points and 10 rebounds in 32 minutes, Watkins 7 points, 10 rebounds, and 6 assists with just 1 turnover in 36 minutes, and Walls 30 points and 16 rebounds in 27 minutes.) But the rest of the team, once again, failed to step up. Without last year’s villain (Bethel, which has left the KIAC) to set their blood boiling, too many of this year’s Lady Mountaineers seem uninspired.
26 Berea 117, St Mary of the Woods College 77 (February 16)
St Mary of the Woods has a unique team nickname: the Pomeroys. Earlier this season the Pomeroys beat Spalding. Spalding beat Berea. But on Senior Night at Berea, one day after losing to Spalding, the Lady Mountaineers destroyed the Pomeroys.
I saw no evidence that SMOTWC scouted Berea, and that was their downfall. There is no other explanation for their failure to guard Rebecca May, as every other opponent of Berea has been careful to do. May, with more open looks than she is accustomed to, burned the Pomeroys for a school record 11 3-pointers (in 25 attempts). In the 29 minutes she played she scored 37 points, with 8 rebounds, 7 assists, 4 steals, and 2 blocked shots. The 37 points tied her career high. She had no turnovers.
May scored her 2000th career point and pulled down her 500th career rebound in this game. With 2,023 points, May is Berea College’s all-time scoring leader. (The great Jennie Kirk held the old record, 1,415.) Senior teammate De-An Watkins contributed 10 rebounds and 10 assists to establish her own place in Berea’s record book: 3rd leading rebounder of all time (554), 2nd all-time in assists (405). De-An’s embrace of Rebecca at center court after Rebecca broke the 3-point record was the most touching moment of the season. I wish you could have seen the expressions on their faces.
Candy Walls contributed 25 points and 10 rebounds in 21 minutes. Her impassioned shout of “Goodness gracious!” when she was forced out of bounds near the scorer’s table tickled the Senior Night crowd.
The rest of the team played with more energy than they’ve shown lately.
Berea at Alice Lloyd College (February 19)
Alice Lloyd asked the KIAC commissioner for permission to cancel this makeup of a previous postponement, and Coach Bunky Harkleroad agreed. The game would have had no bearing on the KIAC tournament seedings, and neither team wanted to exhaust itself with the tournament looming. Still, it seemed odd that Alice Lloyd coach David Adams, with three seniors, would want to cancel his team's Senior Night.
I have been hearing that the other KIAC women's basketball coaches are unhappy that KIAC commissioner Scott Crawford allowed Alice Lloyd to call off their season-ending game with Berea. These coaches wanted Alice Lloyd and Berea to wear each other out before the KIAC tournament, of course.
In my opinion, every team should be obligated to play out their entire schedule, barring some calamity. Alice Lloyd wanted the cancellation to give their kids an easy road to the tournament final, but that's an unfair advantage.
Crawford, who had been contacted by Alice Lloyd, called Bunky and asked him if he would agree to the cancellation. Bunky told him that Berea was ready to play, but if coach Adams was reluctant to play Berea, sure, call off the game. Bunky could have insisted on a forfeit (which would not have affected the tournament seedings for either team), but did not pursue the idea. Bunky figured that if Adams didn't want to play and the decision didn't affect Berea, he too could use the time to rest his players.
Berea finished its regular season 19-7. They are seeded #3 in the upcoming KIAC tournament. To get to the NAIA-II nationals again this year, they’ll have to win 3 tough games on consecutive days (Thursday-Friday-Saturday).
Berea’s Thursday opponent is Midway. The Lady Mountaineers won both regular-season matchups, but the first was decided in overtime and the second by 1 point in regulation. Midway was just 10-20 this year, but they match up very well against Berea and always seem highly motivated for these contests.
If Berea beats Midway, their Friday opponent in the semifinals will almost certainly be IUS.
27 Berea 89, Midway College 73 (February 22)
28 Berea 80, Indiana University-Southeast 77 (February 23)
29 Berea 88, Alice Lloyd College 85 (February 24)
Berea’s ugly February 15 loss, at home, to (6-21) Spalding was the season’s low point. With this defeat the Lady Mountaineers lost their national ranking and any chance of a #1 or #2 seed in the upcoming KIAC tournament.
The changes Coach Bunky Harkleroad instituted for that game (some new looks on defense, and increased minutes for De-An Watkins, Rebecca May, and Candy Walls) became permanent and were largely responsible for the team’s subsequent rise from the dead. The team stopped allowing so many easy baskets, while Watkins and May displayed remarkable senior leadership.
Berea’s first tournament opponent, Midway, was highly motivated after two narrow losses, one in overtime and the other by just a single point. The Midway coaches and players believed they could salvage their disappointing season with a victory. The Lady Mountaineers jumped off to a double-digit lead and maintained it, but at a cost. In the first half Watkins suffered a painful leg injury, which she somehow managed to play through.
This hard-fought triumph earned Berea a shot at the Lady Grenadiers of IUS, who had beaten Berea decisively two weeks previously. Berea was banged up, while IUS had cruised to victory over a STLCOP squad that offered a mere token resistance. IUS has probably more talent than any team in the conference, and they are very well coached, but Berea overcame them, barely.
Alice Lloyd was similarly positioned to beat Berea, as they were well rested after a first-round bye and in the semifinals (against Asbury) did not have to play as strenuous a game as Berea did. Berea led by 8 at the half but Alice Lloyd closed the gap and finally tied the game at 77-77. At gut-check time Berea prevailed.
In the 3 tournament contests that followed her 37-point effort in the last game of the regular season, Rebecca May scored 85 points, grabbed 25 rebounds, blocked 5 shots, and had 7 assists and 8 steals. De-An Watkins played 80 minutes on a bad leg she could barely walk on before or after the competition. The nation’s leader in assist-turnover ratio had 16 assists and just 3 turnovers.
The underclassmen also answered the call to step up, particularly sophomore forward Sarah Hughes, who has never played better.
The Lady Mountaineers are 22-7 and once again, as KIAC champions, they will advance to the NAIA-II national tournament in Sioux City, Iowa.
I’ll see you there.