Sometimes one point makes all the difference.
The Washington College women's basketball team – with eight freshmen on an 11-woman roster - had lost five games in a row and were 3-8 overall and 1-5 in the Centennial Conference before a one-point victory over first-place Johns Hopkins on January 11th. That 57-56 confidence-boosting win was the start of a 7-2 stretch for the Shorewomen, who wound up in the hunt for a Centennial Conference Tournament berth until the final week of the season.
While the Shorewomen just missed what would have been their first conference tournament appearance in a dozen years, they made tremendous strides considering the team's youth. Junior co-captains and guards Meghan Tait (Oxford, PA/Oxford Area) and Sally O'Donnell (Cape May Court House, NJ/Wildwood Catholic) and sophomore center Erin Kile (Benton, PA/Benton Area) were the only players on the team with any collegiate basketball experience entering the season.
"I knew we had a lot of talent and potential coming into the season so the goal was to bring this young group along as fast as possible," reflects third-year head coach Megan Duran. "Being involved in a playoff chase late in the season was very exciting with a young group who continued to grow game in and game out. I think this will help us in the future because we know what it feels like to be right there and just miss the tournament."
It didn't take long for the team's eight freshmen to be introduced to the increased level of competition at the collegiate level. The Shorewomen traveled to Wesley College for their season opener in November and the more experienced Wolverines used a full-court press and eight three-pointers to build a 49-33 halftime lead. Washington clawed back in the second half before losing, 72-67. That second-half effort foreshadowed the kind of resiliency and cohesiveness the Shorewomen would display all season.
"With every win and loss this team grew into experienced college basketball players," notes Duran. "The team chemistry is one of the best I have seen on a team and that has helped us grow quickly into the team we are."
Despite the gradual and consistent improvement, the win over Johns Hopkins was a big tipping point. The Shorewomen trailed by nine points at halftime to the Blue Jays, whom they had beaten just once before in 25 previous meetings. Tait came up big for the Shorewomen late in the game, netting what would prove to be the game-winning jumper with nine seconds left.
Both Tait and O'Donnell thrived in leadership roles usually reserved for seniors. "My captains had a tough job this year, but I thought they handled it very well," Duran remarks. "Sally and Tait helped guide, lead, and reassure our freshmen each day. I think I have great captains and thought they did a great job to bring this young team along."
Just two days after the win over Hopkins, the Shorewomen won another game by a single point, defeating Dickinson, 52-51, to break a 14-game losing streak to the Red Devils. Washington's 7-2 stretch later saw the Shorewomen win four straight conference games, including three road wins in six days, for the first time since 1999. On Valentine's Day, the Shorewomen kept their playoff hopes alive by beating McDaniel, 78-72, to end a 15-game losing streak to the Green Terror.
The end result of the season was a 12-13 overall record, equaling the team's highest win total of the past dozen years. More importantly, the Shorewomen finished 10-10 in conference play, their first .500 or better record in the Centennial since 1999 and their most conference wins ever in a single season.
Tait earned All-Centennial Conference honorable mention and team Most Valuable Player recognition for her play during the season, averaging 10.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, and a conference-leading 5.3 assists per game. O'Donnell led the team in scoring with 11.9 points per game, grabbed 5.0 rebounds per game, and tied with Kile for the team lead in blocked shots with 28. Both Tait and O'Donnell earned spots on the Centennial Conference Academic Honor Roll.
Kile had an impressive sophomore campaign with averages of 8.6 points and 6.5 rebounds per contest. She was part of an outstanding frontcourt rotation that also included freshmen Latisha Pledger (Chesapeake, VA/Indian River), Erin Fitzgerald (Greensboro, NC/Bishop McGuiness), and Liz Warkala (New York, NY/Marymount School of New York). Pledger averaged 8.8 points and 8.0 rebounds in under 22 minutes per game, Fitzgerald 7.2 points and 6.5 rebounds, and Warkala was named her team's Most Improved Player after earning five starts late in the season. In the backcourt, freshmen Kelly Mitchell (Laurel, MD/Academy of the Holy Cross) and Claire Mattox (Arlington, VA/Potomac School) supported Tait and O'Donnell. Mitchell averaged 6.6 points per game, while Mattox averaged 3.7 points per game was named to the conference' All-Sportsmanship Team.
With all 11 players returning next season, the future of Shorewomen basketball is certainly bright and no one is looking forward to it more than Duran.
"This team has already made some marks on the history of our program and will continue to do so in the near future. They are going to be an exciting team to watch next year."