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)
The 2006-07 Lady Mountaineers of Berea College have earned the school’s second bid to the NAIA-II national women’s basketball tournament. The 2005-06 team was first to qualify.
They earned their bid by winning the Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (KIAC) tournament, defeating Alice Lloyd College 88-85 in the tournament final on February 24.
Berea’s record is 22-7. They have won at least 21 games in each of the last 4 seasons, after no previous 20-win seasons in the history of the program.
Berea’s style of play is characterized by frequent substitutions, a fast pace, pressure defense, and 3-point shooting.
Berea’s best-known player is senior shooting guard Rebecca May, the school’s all-time leader in points scored. May was named a second-team NAIA-II All-American last season when she set the single season record for 3-pointers made (159).
Because Coach Bunky Harkleroad wants all of his 15 players to play significant minutes, Berea substitutes frequently. Just two players (May and senior point guard De-An Watkins) average as many as 20 minutes a game (24 and 22, respectively). In evaluating the performance of Berea players, per-40-minute averages are more meaningful than per-game averages.
Berea tops the NAIA-II scoring list, averaging 94 points per game. Berea has led the NAIA-II in scoring in each of the last 4 seasons. These Berea teams have set many national scoring records.
Berea averages 95 shots per game, of which about 50 are from 3-point range.
Berea’s 120-111 overtime defeat of Midway College on January 11 set a new NAIA-II record for most points, both teams (231). This broke the previous record Berea had shared with Wilberforce University since November 14, 2004 (Berea 117, Wilberforce 113).
Berea grants no athletic scholarships. Every athlete is a walk-on.
Athletes, like all Berea students, are obligated to work at college jobs.
A high school athlete may be admitted to Berea College only if she meets the same admissions criteria (academic promise and financial need) as every other student. An applicant must demonstrate both of these criteria. Furthermore, Berea chooses to admit most of its students from a specifically defined geographical area, the counties that comprise the region of Southern Appalachia.
At Berea College, sports don’t top the priority list. Students accepted by Berea pay no tuition, but all of them must work a minimum of 10 hours a week at college jobs to help defray the costs of their education. No exceptions are made for athletes, who play sports in whatever time is left after they’ve fulfilled their academic and labor obligations. Berea grants no athletic scholarships; however, 36 students have been named All-American athletes at Berea. Although every athlete at Berea is a walk-on, Berea’s teams hold their own by attracting students who are uniquely committed.
BUNKY HARKLEROAD, Head Coach
Entering the 2007 NAIA Div-II national tournament, Bunky Harkleroad is completing his seventh season as head coach of the Berea College women’s basketball program. His overall record is 132-67. During Coach Harkleroad’s tenure the women’s basketball program has accomplished a great deal, and an unprecedented level of excitement surrounds the program.
In 2003-04 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 Div-II in scoring in all four 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.”
Coach Harkleroad has been voted KIAC Coach of the Year four times in the last six seasons. This year’s Lady Mountaineers have won 22 games and lost just 7, winning at least 21 games for the fourth season in a row. Last year’s 26-6 team was the first Berea team to qualify for a trip to Sioux City.
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 is completing her third season as assistant coach. A fan favorite as a Lady Mountaineer player, Smith is now building an impressive coaching resume. 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 helps 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 the Berea system inside and out,” Coach Harkleroad adds. “She knows what it takes to win and knows how to communicate.”
2006-07 SEASON RECAP
“Getting to last year’s national tournament was huge,” remarked Coach Bunky Harkleroad before the 2006-07 season opener. “We belonged there, but I believe we can get better.” To accomplish that goal Harkleroad arranged a difficult, demanding nonconference schedule for the Lady Mountaineers in the hope that stronger opposition would toughen them for the KIAC battles that would begin in January.
Berea went 11-4 in November and December, succumbing only to a strong NAIA-I foe, Brescia, and ranked NAIA-II juggernauts Bryan, Davenport, and Doane. In mid-January, however, the team began to unravel.
“We found that the level of play in our conference had risen,” says Harkleroad. “Then we had some personnel issues you can’t plan for: a rash of injuries and an academic casualty. Because every player on our team is a key player, losing anyone sets us back.”
The team had struggled from the beginning to integrate seven newcomers into what for all of them was an unfamiliar style of play, the running, gunning System. What appeared to be a successful assimilation fell apart when several veterans were forced by ill fortune to vacate the lineup. With their characteristic aggressiveness blunted, the Lady Mountaineers found themselves scrambling to beat weaker KIAC teams and falling to strong ones. Then a humbling February 15 loss at home to 6-21 Spalding cost Berea its national ranking and appeared to end the team’s KIAC title hopes.
“We had to shake things up,” recalls Harkleroad. “Our most productive players were carrying more than their end of the load, while other players, although they were trying hard, weren’t getting a whole lot done. We had to give more minutes to the players who were taking care of the ball and rebounding and scoring. To do that we could no longer substitute 5-in, 5-out all the time, which had been our trademark. We could run the same offense, but defensively we could no longer exert full-court pressure on every possession. The changes we made were not drastic changes, but they were enough to make a difference.”
Third-seeded Berea’s first tournament foe was Midway, a team the Lady Mountaineers had defeated twice, but barely: once in overtime and again by one point in regulation. In their third meeting Berea was a surprise 16-point winner. That victory earned them the right to challenge a talented, peaking, and better-rested Indiana-Southeast team in the semifinals. Berea won that game too. The following day the Lady Mountaineers upset the much fresher #1 seed, the Lady Eagles of Alice Lloyd College, in the tournament final.
Outstanding senior leadership from De-An Watkins and Rebecca May (who burned Berea’s three tournament foes for 85 points and 25 rebounds) led the Lady Mountaineers to the championship. Their teammates answered the call, most of them playing their best basketball of the season in the three games that counted most.
TOURNAMENT DIARY: MONDAY, MARCH 5
To get to Sioux City I drove through an Iowa that is still struggling to recover from the blizzard that shut down the interstates for 48 hours last week and left tens of thousands of citizens without power. Stranded cars still litter the roads. I got here ahead of the team, which stopped for a shootaround at (appropriately) Grinnell College.
A few weeks ago I received a phone call from a friend who lives in Massachusetts. He said, “I've been hearing about the Lady Mountaineers for four years. I can't stand it any more. I've got to see them play in person.” He had arranged to fly into Louisville the afternoon of the second day of the KIAC women's basketball tournament. Luckily for him, Berea won its opening round game on Thursday and was still alive to contest the Friday semifinal. After he arrived my friend was treated to the two pulse-pounding victories (over IUS and Alice Lloyd) that propelled the Lady Ms back into the national spotlight. Before he flew back to gelid New England he exclaimed, “I'm now a believer!”
The Lady Ms represent an idea, or a set of ideas, which fascinates the general sports fan and keeps Madison Countians who have seen them play coming back for more. For openers, Coach Bunky Harkleroad's rethinking of traditional basketball norms has fashioned a team that has fun playing the game and provides fun for the fan to watch. When the Lady Ms are on their game, they're defending, running, and shooting with maximum aggressiveness, and their stock in trade is the single most exciting play in basketball, the three-point shot. They launch more of these than any team in America, and there is no greater boost to a player or fan's adrenaline than a made three-pointer. It's exhilarating when you make it, demoralizing when your opponent makes it.
For Berea the trey is not an afterthought, a play of last resort if a layup is unobtainable and the shot clock is winding down: it is the most desired outcome of an offensive possession. But in basketball as elsewhere in sports and in life, form must follow function. A particular style that is fun to play and watch will satisfy player and spectator only insofar as it affords the team a chance to win. The Berea women, who not so many years ago were mediocre or worse, are 91-27 since adopting The System.
What is most important about The System is that it has allowed a Berea College team to maximize its potential. Berea College athletes are not a pampered elite, not a cadre of quasi-professional mercenaries as carefully separated from the institution's educational mission as gladiators from patrician Roman society. Berea athletes are bona fide college kids who sacrifice their free time to pursue sports as a true extra-curricular activity. Berea College is not one of those booster-fueled jock factories which are amply represented at national tournaments (including this one).
I've been watching team sports of all sorts for five decades, and it appears to me that for athletes frustration and disappointment are outcomes that are much more common than we like to admit. Many people crave athletic competition, but for what may be the majority the experience ends without the satisfaction they hoped for.
The System, which is predicated on the continual substitution of fresh bodies, enables more athletes to play meaningful roles on teams that are successful. Moreover, it engenders bonding and friendship between team members.
Every athletic team's season is a long adventure. Players new to The System, even those most strongly attracted to it, have much to learn and to unlearn, and often the transition is protracted and difficult. The System is a precision tool, but when even one of the five players on the floor is moving in the wrong direction, the tool is no longer precise enough to get the job done. The success of Berea's System teams has always been a measure of how quickly the newcomers acclimate. Berea had 7 newcomers last fall. At times there have been problems.
My friend from Massachusetts said it, and I concur: the enthusiasm of the team will be the key to success against Bethel College of Indiana. Berea won't have a talent advantage against Bethel's proud corps of scholarship athletes. But all season the Lady Ms have won games in which they've shot poorly or rebounded poorly or committed fouls or turned the ball over. They won these games by outhustling the opposition. When they do not play with maximum intensity, they cannot win. In Sioux City they must not freeze, they must not hold back.
Last year's team had never played in the national tournament. That inexperience did them in. But this year's upperclassmen are experienced, and the newcomers demonstrated in the KIAC tournament that they will follow when the upperclassmen lead.
I believe that Rebecca May will score points in this game. Keep in mind, however, something that Berea men's coach John Mills has pointed out. While the Berea women hit, on average, 14 three-pointers per game, it is their second-effort points, closer in, that win games for them. Effective offensive rebounding is a function of aggressiveness. Senior point guard De-An Watkins has mastered the art of following a shot and snatching away a missed shot from bigger defenders. For Berea to outscore Bethel, Berea post players Toccara Gambrel, Sarah Hughes, and Calloray Howard must rebound their share of missed shots in the low post and convert them into baskets.
Can Berea overcome Bethel, and even advance farther through the tournament field? A week ago Watkins told me, “It's not unimaginable, because we still haven't reached our full potential.”
TOURNAMENT DIARY: TUESDAY, MARCH 6
Today I saw a bumper sticker that read, “Eat beef. The west wasn’t won on salad.” Perhaps so, but it is impossible to ignore the fact that one of Sioux City’s main industries is the processing of chickens.
I’m finding out again that this is a tremendously welcoming community. All the people I meet are enthusiastic about the NAIA-II women’s basketball tournament, and they’re interested in what I have to tell them about Berea College.
Road crews are working tirelessly to rid the city of the enormous snowbanks plowed up after last week’s blizzard. It still isn’t easy to get around. One team’s bus got stuck on a snowy promontory. (Rescue crews are on the scene, I understand.) On a positive note, the bus carrying the team of the College of St Joseph the Provider pulled in last night from Rutland, Vermont, after a three-day marathon. No amount of the white stuff deters the citizens of the Green Mountain State.
This morning Bunky told me, “This is a day to get used to where we are, to meet new people and get reacquainted with people we’ve met before, to help make some lives a little happier, and finally to get dressed up and eat a great meal.”
Some of you may wonder why the team needed to be here Monday for a game on Thursday. The NAIA requires all teams to arrive by Tuesday morning at the latest, which is the deadline for coaches to register at tournament headquarters. Also scheduled Tuesday morning is the clinic for Special Olympians that all teams are asked to attend. There’s a mandatory coaches’ meeting in the afternoon, followed by an optional worship service for coaches and players. The final event of the day is one of the tournament’s most important and meaningful, the Banquet of Champions, for which the players of all 32 teams appear in their finest raiment. If last year is any indication, the Berea contingent is going to sparkle. I wish I could send you pictures!
Like last year, fewer than half of the tournament teams chose to participate in the Special Olympics clinic. Perhaps these no-shows regard it as an unwelcome distraction from their intensive preparation for the upcoming combat. But Berea’s athletes are service-minded. They aren’t put out, because they welcome the opportunity to give. On Wednesday the team will visit the same public school they went to last year (its name escapes me), and that’s an occasion I’m sure the students are looking forward to.
Bethel of Indiana was one of the teams at the clinic. One of the Berea players remarked, “They look big.” I asked her what she thought the Bethel players were saying about Berea. My best guess: “They look small!”
Berea’s morning concluded with an hour of practice and preparation. De-An Watkins’s leg is still bothering her, so Bunky held her out of the most onerous drills. She’ll be good to go at game time.
I delivered a copy of the Berea College media kit to the Sioux City Journal, whose old-school sports editor, Terry Hersom, undoubtedly prefers a hard copy to a web link. Later I had a nice conversation with Chris Varney, the tournament radio coordinator. Chris did the play-by-play of last year’s battle with Aquinas, and he had a lot of good things to say about the Berea team and Berea College. Chris wasn’t sure which announcers would be assigned to the Berea-Bethel contest, but he promised to deliver the two copies of the media kit I gave him to whomever would be calling the game. Chris already knows the foremost fact about our school and our town, that it is pronounced “Buh-REE-ah.”
TOURNAMENT DIARY: WEDNESDAY, MARCH 7
The NCAA-II women’s basketball tournament is under way. No upsets yet. Berea will play tomorrow. Bunky is happy his team was scheduled for a Thursday game. He believes this will give his team a better chance to settle down. The fun and festivities will be over, and the Lady Mountaineers will be ready to get down to the serious business of challenging the Lady Pilots of Bethel College of Indiana.
Last night’s Banquet of Champions was a sumptuous affair that everyone enjoyed. Seven-foot former NBA star Tim McCormick was on hand to deliver a rousing motivational speech. I wish I could send you the photo he posed for beside our own colossus, 5-5 senior point guard De-An Watkins!
Tonight’s action will feature the very moving Parade of Champions, in which all 32 teams will march onto the court to be recognized and applauded by the assembled multitude. At that time each team’s Champion of Character will be announced. Berea’s C of C last season was Rebekah Klee, who got married after the basketball season and didn’t play this year. She’s still enrolled at Berea College, however, and I trust she’ll be listening to tomorrow’s game in Berea with her husband and 3-month-old son.
Berea’s practice session this morning focused on specific preparation for Bethel. Bethel is a great team, but Bunky and his assistant Summer Smith have devised a game plan that will defeat them if the Lady Ms can execute it (and their shots fall). (Yes, they’ll still be launching a myriad of treys, but please don’t ask for more details!)
Unlike last year, when there was plenty of pre-tournament buzz about Berea, the Lady Ms are being overlooked. No one is complaining about that. Berea has a lot to prove after last year’s one-sided loss to Aquinas College. A victory over Bethel will restore Berea’s credibility instantly, of course. If that happens, people will begin once again to ask questions about what makes Berea College unique in the world of higher education and athletics.
This morning the team paid a visit, as they did last year, to the Sanford Community Center in Sioux City. The center operates various outreach programs for at-risk kids. One of the most important is an alternative suspension program, whose mission is to re-educate, redirect, and reintegrate suspended students into the mainstream school system. The SCC also operates an after-school program.
This morning the Berea players spent an hour with a group of about 40 middle school and high school boys and girls. Once again, as they did yesterday at the Special Olympics clinic, the Lady Ms gave of themselves with enthusiasm. The SCC teachers will be bringing these same kids to Berea’s game on Thursday. I expect them to form, as they did last year, a very vocal rooting section. Not so secretly we all hope that one day one of these kids will qualify academically to seek admission to Berea College. Berea is certainly making a lot of friends in this community.
Once again Wells Dairy is the local business designated as Berea College’s host. All the hosts knock themselves out to be hospitable, but there could be no better sponsor than Wells Dairy, whose ice cream is sold nationally under the brand name Blue Bunny.
Wells invited the team to visit their massive factory and museum in Le Mars, Iowa (about 30 miles north of Sioux City), and the team accepted the invitation earlier this afternoon. Each player received a Blue Bunny sweatshirt and carte blanche to order any of the mind-boggling sundaes in the ice cream shop. Was the promise of another visit to Wells Dairy a motivator for the Lady Ms as they battled through the KIAC tournament last month? You better believe it!
Incidentally, at Wells Dairy bus driver Keith Bullock asked for “The Goliath,” six softball-sized scoops of ice cream smothered with whipped cream, chocolate sauce, and nuts, served in a bowl that resembled a birdbath. While Keith enjoys his reputation as a gourmand, even he was humbled by The Goliath, which he was unable to finish despite a gallant effort. Good thing I brought some Pepto!
Finally, here on the national stage, the Lady Mountaineers are ready to “represent BC’ on the basketball court. They’ve got 26 hours to wait. I’ll send a full report tomorrow evening.
TOURNAMENT DIARY: THURSDAY MORNING, MARCH 8
Last night, at the Parade of Champions, the public address announcer, as he did last year, pronounced the name “Berea” correctly. I’m hoping the radio guys will be as conscientious. I assure you that I’ve done my best to spread the word.
De-An Watkins was honored as Berea College’s Champion of Character. That came as no surprise to anyone who knows her.
The oddest matchup of the day pitted the Lady Trojans of Dakota State University against the Lady Trojans of Taylor University. The Lady Trojans won. Oddly enough, this was the only upset of the day.
There are some great nicknames here: the Queen Bees of St Ambrose University, who are staying here at the Holiday Inn with us, and the Trolls of Trinity Christian College, making their first NAIA-II tournament appearance. I was able to talk with a few of the Trolls, who are matched against my least favorite team out here, the University of St Francis Lady Cougars. (Ask me about that sometime.) My message to the Trolls: go get ’em!
Followup to the team’s visit to the Sanford Community Center: the hit of the day was definitely Annbruce Madden’s clinic on the technique of dribbling three basketballs simultaneously. It’s a skill that won’t help you in game play, but it sure did break the ice with this group of Sioux City teenagers.
The SCC kids are a diverse group: African Americans, Mexican Americans, Native Americans, and European Americans, plus every possible mixture thereof, as I was told by Nelson Wilson, our contact there. It seemed highly appropriate that Berea College’s athletic team was the one invited to visit, representing an educational institution that exemplifies the value of interracial cooperation. The Lady Mountaineers connected with these kids without missing a beat, with everyone having fun and learning a little too. It sure looked like a good thing for the SCC kids to meet and talk with the type of hardworking, high-achieving young people we brought here from Berea.
Thursday the team will shoot around and do anything else they can to endure the suspense before their 5:45 (Central) tipoff. One of our players is exhibiting flu-like symptoms. Sick or not, she will want to get out there just as much as the rest of her teammates.
BEREA LOSES TO BETHEL IN OPENING ROUND
By Nathan Hutchinson, Sports Editor, Richmond Register (used by permission)
Natalie Young and Abby Noll delivered the one-two punch Bethel (Ind.) College needed to knock the Lady Mountaineers out of the NAIA Division II National Tournament in the first round for the second straight season.
Young scored a game-high 33 points and Noll added 28 points as the fourth-ranked Lady Pilots handed Berea College (22-8) a 98-86 loss Thursday at Gateway Arena in Sioux City, Iowa. Annbruce Madden scored a team-high 17 points for the Lady Mountaineers and Shavannah Brinson added 16 points.
“We ran into a buzzsaw,” Berea College coach Bunky Harkleroad said. “We played a very, very good basketball team with two very special players, Abby Noll and Natalie Young. We got down too much in the first half to overcome Bethel. Natalie Young is one of the best players I’ve ever coached against. She was hard to stop.”
Berea trailed 51-30 at halftime and fell behind by as many as 25 points early in the second half before mounting a late comeback. The Lady Mountaineers put together a 16-4 run, but never could cut the lead back to single digits.
They got back to within 13 points (84-71) with just more than seven minutes left, but Noll converted a three-point play that helped jump-start another Bethel surge.
“The first half killed us,” Madden said. “The first half we were slow, like we weren’t ready. But we played hard to the end.”
Berea hung around in the opening minutes of the first half, even though leading scorer Rebecca May did not record a point in the first 20 minutes. Bethel had a 22-19 lead before using a 12-0 run to take control.
The Lady Pilots went on to score 10 of the final 12 points of the half, including a half-court buzzer-beater by Nora Didrick.
“Half of our players are freshmen and newcomers, and we weren’t expecting Bethel to come out and play as they did,” Brinson said. “Some of us were nervous. At the half we knew we had to pick up the rebounding, especially offensive rebounding, so we could get more shots up. And we knew we had to cause more turnovers.”
Bethel shot 54 percent from the field in the opening half, including 62 percent from three-point range, and got 19 points from Noll and 10 points from Young and Alicia Barczak.
Madden had 11 first-half points to lead Berea.
May finished her college career with 13 points and Sarah Hughes added 10 points. The Lady Mountaineers were nine-of-35 from three-point range and were out-rebounded 44-35.
“Our younger players led us in scoring, and that bodes well for our future,” Harkleroad said. “Two newcomers picked up the pace and played well. We didn’t quit, and I liked that a lot. The final score was a respectable outcome considering the first half.”
Berea was handed an 84-53 loss by Aquinas College last year in first round in the school’s only other appearance in the national tournament.
TOURNAMENT DIARY: MONDAY, MARCH 12
I’d like to share my final thoughts on the NAIA-II Women’s Basketball Tournament experience with those of you to whom I sent my daily reports from Sioux City. You all know that I am not employed by Berea College and do not speak for the institution officially or unofficially. But you also know that in the 12 years I’ve lived here I’ve learned a lot about Berea College and have developed a strong affection for the school and its unique mission.
In Europe there are universities and there are athletic teams, but universities do not sponsor athletic teams. The two worlds are entirely separate. While this state of affairs has the virtue of logic, America rejected it emphatically more than a century ago. Today tens of millions of Americans are eager to pay to watch intercollegiate athletic competition and to buy apparel and other merchandise bearing the mark of college athletic teams.
Throughout its history Berea College has regarded the commercialization and professionalization of college athletics with unease. While Berea’s leaders have chosen (rightly in my view) not to set up shop in this morally dubious marketplace, the Berea College community as a whole has accepted the school’s participation in intercollegiate sports as long as it is able to manage its athletic program within the guidelines of amateurism.
Women’s basketball is one very small part of what Berea College does, but it is something worth doing. It is proper for a college to support extracurricular activities if these activities serve an educational purpose. Many Berea students are attracted to intercollegiate athletics as a wholesome supplement to their academic experience, as a further opportunity to accomplish something meaningful through intelligence, discipline, and hard work.
At Berea as at every college, students come and go while employees remain. But employees must not adopt an assumption that a college exists in order to provide employment. Employees in a healthy collegiate environment are mindful that a college, like a hospital, is a service organization. A college’s true purpose is to serve young people, specifically high school graduates who seek an education as an aid to a better life. A college comes closest to fulfilling this purpose when its employees show a liking for young people and a willingness to help them achieve worthy goals.
I assume that all of you wanted the Lady Ms to win Thursday’s game and felt disappointed when they didn’t. That’s how I felt, too. Later I realized that I had seen nothing in this defeat to sour my belief in these young people and their future.
The Berea College community had a right to ask its Lady Mountaineers to give their best effort on the court and to represent the school with dignity off the court in Sioux City. Did every Berea player contribute her very best effort in Thursday’s game? Of course not! But on the court, as in the classroom and in life, even those who strive hardest for perfection rarely achieve it. Might the Berea team’s best effort have overcome Bethel? Probably, but not if Bethel had responded with its own best effort. The Indiana school is loaded with high-caliber scholarship athletes. Bethel’s best, I now feel certain, is better than Berea’s best.
I’m going to remember that Bethel, a power in the mighty Mid-Central College Conference, respected Berea enough to keep its starters in the game to the end despite a double-digit lead.
As I write this, the NCAA-1 men’s basketball tournament, the epitome of big-time college sports, is about to begin. Every sports fan knows that under the big umbrella of NCAA-1 some conferences are much stronger than others. These are the conferences whose schools have the will and the wherewithal to hire the most gifted athletes. The rest do the best they can with the athletes the stronger conferences reject. In the opening round of “March Madness” the champions of the stronger conferences feast upon the weaker conferences’ representatives.
Berea’s Lady Mountaineers could have defeated many of the teams I watched in Sioux City. They weren’t matched against any of these teams because the brackets of a single-elimination postseason tournament are not fashioned randomly. These tournaments are set up to enable the strong to cull out the weak until only the strongest two remain to contest the championship.
But “strength” and “weakness” are relative terms. No matter how tall you stand in the competitive arena, there is always someone, somewhere, who stands taller than you. The Lady Mountaineers were the class of the KIAC, but Bethel beat them decisively. Bethel, in turn, fell to the College of the Ozarks in the tournament semifinals. Ozarks will play Indiana Wesleyan for the championship in Tuesday’s final. Whoever wins that game will have earned the right to feel satisfied, but what chance would you give them if Pat Summitt and her Tennessee Vols came calling?
No Berea women’s basketball team in my memory has played an opponent ranked as high as #4, as Bethel was. What makes a Top Ten program is the ability to attract athletes who are bigger, stronger, faster, and tougher. Berea, which offers no athletic scholarships, cannot compete for the services of these elites. What Berea teams can hope to do is maximize, through skilled coaching, the athletic talent that presents itself on a campus where sports are strictly a spare-time pursuit.
The best match for Berea is the type of coach who thinks of his- or herself not as a whip-cracker or a teacher of athletic technique but as an educator in a broad sense. Bunky Harkleroad is one of these coaches. Under his guidance 15 Berea College students wrapped up a successful season with an enriching week they’ll remember all their lives.
You’ll be happy to know, moreover, that they created a favorable impression everywhere they went.
And yes, they all brought their books with them.
EPILOGUE: LOOKING BACK WITH THE 2006-07 SENIORS
Rebecca May: Deciding to become a student at Berea College was one of the best decisions I ever made. Berea offered me so many opportunities I would have never received at any other college. Not only did the quality education make me a better student, but the outside-the-classroom experience made me a better person. I met so many incredible people and made several friendships that will last long after I have left Berea.
Basketball played a significant role in my decision to attend Berea. I wanted to continue playing basketball and felt Berea was the best place to do that. My four years of college ball were amazing, and every minute was worth it. The accomplishments that both my team and I, individually, reached will remain with me forever. I will never forget going to Nationals for the first time as a junior. I will never forget Senior Night; and then winning our conference tournament again after a very tough senior season. These are moments that will never fade, and I am so happy and honored to get to say that I was a part of all those special memories.
De-An Watkins: Being a student-athlete at Berea College is both challenging and rewarding. You become a strong, well-balanced person who has learned to manage her time, and you build lasting friendships and bonds.
At Berea basketball is fun, but it’s not your whole world the way it is at bigger schools, where you breathe basketball and always think about it. You can do that here, but it’s not demanded of you because it’s you who makes the decision to play. When I decided to play basketball at Berea, I just wanted to have fun, something to do with my spare time. I thought we could improve our team’s record, and I wanted to be part of that effort.
Playing in the shadow of a great point guard for three years, I lost a little confidence in myself. But after she graduated I was asked to take on her leadership role, and I grew into it. I worked hard, improved my game, and built my confidence back up. I learned what it takes to be a leader, how to strengthen my will and hold my own with many different personalities. That knowledge is going to help me in later life. My experiences at Berea confirmed that whatever you set your mind and heart to do, you can accomplish it.