|Jasmine Bonivel and the rest of the senior-laden Captains started their season with a victory over Bridgewater (Va.).
Photo by Patrick Dubois, Christopher Newport athletics
By Ryan Scott
The bottom of Eric Bridgeland’s email signature says, “Chasing Perfection – Achieving Excellence.” The 2016-17 version of the Whitman Blues came very, very close to achieving perfection, losing just once, 85-91 in the national semifinals to eventual champion Babson. This year, the entire team is back.
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While it would be easy to get bogged down in unrealized expectations or succumb to incredible pressure, Bridgeland and the Blues have built a unique culture that fits the East Coast stereotype of the west coast vibe.
“We’ve been focused on having as much fun as possible and smelling the roses at every stop,” says the coach, now in his tenth year in Walla Walla. “We hope that we win, but we work hard and whatever happens is going to happen. We’ll learn from it either way and we’ll move on.”
If you were privileged to see any of Whitman’s run to Salem last year, you saw the focus and intensity they put forward on the floor and the lack of pressure was equally evident. It’s a difficult balance that Bridgeland and his staff work hard to maintain.
“We have a quote of the day and a joke of the day every day,” he says,” We’ve also got this picture of a clown we hang up in practice with a nerf machine gun, so if things get too much you can go over and shoot the clown for a while.”
With the entire roster returning, though, coaches have to figure out ways to make the new season feel like something different, especially for the Blues, who spent a few weeks this summer traveling and playing in Costa Rica. “We’ve been worried about burnout more than anything else,” says Bridgeland, “It’s been more about making sure this is a marathon pace and not a sprint.”
Whitman ensures that the players are focused not just on the next game, but on each day of the season through a unique rating system that translates performance in practice to playing time during games.
“You could see a different starting lineup every game, because guys have to earn it,” says Bridgeland, “It comes from who wins in practice, from being most active, from hustle plays – tips, rebounds, charges. You can’t take a day off in our culture or you’ll get run over. It kills complacency and makes each game and practice something different, fun, and competitive.”
For Bill Broderick and the Christopher Newport women’s team – a 2016-17 final four squad that graduated less than 1% of its minutes played – just having a sense of familiarity would be welcome. The Captains played Division I Old Dominion to a near draw in an exhibition while without three of their top six players, all dealing with injuries. The Captains then dispatched Bridgewater (Va.) 63-36 in the season opener on Wednesday night.
Starting center, Jessica Daguilh is still working to rehab a torn ACL that kept her out of last year’s tourney run, while seniors Devon Byrd and Anitra Thomas also struggle to overcome physical setbacks.
“We played fourteen players in the Final Four,” says Broderick on his team’s depth, “While there are some of our players that can do things others can’t, we try not to put any stock in any one person. I don’t know if I ever want to have a set-up where any one person or even two or three feel like they have to be that way. Our team realizes there’s no one person bigger than any other.”
The Captains crashed the party last year, downing Hope and Ohio Northern on the road, before falling to eventual champions Amherst 66-51. This season will be the career culmination for a senior class that’s started from the get-go in Newport News. They’ll be doing it differently.
“Don’t get me wrong,” says Broderick, “I’d love to have a 6’3” center to throw the ball into, but that’s just not how we play.” He refers to the fast-paced, rotation-heavy style Broderick has brought to CNU in his five years with the program, a decidedly different look from the often plodding style favored by recent final four contenders and the Capital Athletic Conference.
Christopher Newport is not the only squad looking different this year. D3hoops.com preseason No. 1 Tufts is adjusting to life after Michaela North. “It’s the first time in five or six years we haven’t had an experienced 6’2” center sitting in the paint,” says head coach Carla Berube, “but our goals haven’t changed: we just want to get better every day and take steps forward.”
Tufts is a perennial final four contender, having made the ultimate weekend in each of the past four seasons, but, like every coach you speak with this time of year, the only way to look is forward.
“As I tell the team,” says Broderick, “The trophy is in the case and the picture is on the wall, so that means they’re memories.” GP Gromacki, coach of the defending champion Amherst Mammoths says about the same, “We had a lot of great experiences and recognition, but once November 1st came, we put all of that in the past. We’ll take some of the lessons we learned last year, but we’re not focused on last year. Our goal is to create a whole new experience for this team.”
Gromacki is one of the few coaches who know what it’s like to follow up a national title, having done it with Amherst after the 2011 title campaign. He and his 2010 squad were also the last team to make the final four without any seniors.
When asked if there’s any advice for Whitman and CNU, sitting in the same boat this time around he said, “Hopefully they’ve learned [winning a title] isn’t easy. A lot can happen in a season, but if you stay focused on the goal you’re halfway there.”
For his squad at Amherst that means not worrying about the title they’re technically defending and do what it takes to win this season.
“Preseason rankings are a thank you for last year and a target on your back,” says Broderick, “You have to realize that people are going to bring their A game every night. Even if a team only wins five games all year, if one of them is against you, it’ll be a success.”
It’s that understanding, on a visceral level, that experienced final four squads can bring into the new season. Not just intellectually understanding what it takes to win at the highest level, but seeing and experiencing it firsthand.
“As a coach you want to be the team that wins on the last day of the season,” says defending national champion, Babson coach Stephen Brennan, “It’s so hard to do for any number of reasons and only a select few have ever done it.” Babson will try to become the first back-to-back men's title winner since Washington U. did it in 2008 and 2009.
After graduating six seniors and bringing in three impact transfers, there’s a lot of unknowns in Babson’s upcoming season. What is known, however, is the experience and determination of Nick Comenale, the returnee with the most on-court experience for the Beavers.
Brennan notes, “Nick’s been a very vocal leader and competitor since the first day of practice. I see him as a silent assassin, but he’s been talking and leading. He knows what it takes to get where we want to go.”
“Our practices have been a lot more intense,” says Broderick, “They’re a lot more led by the players, because they know what we have to do and what we have to do to get better.”
USA Today featured Whitman in an article last spring when they were the final remaining undefeated squad across all divisions in the NCAA. The article pointed to video Bridgeland showed his team of the finish in the Olympic Downhill, the mere fractions of a second between finishers and just how close is the difference between the top of podium and out of the medals.
Each of the coaches I spoke with, those at the top of the polls with all the expectations and experience that comes from success still understands that it’s a game of inches and seconds and often, just plain luck.
More than one coach brought up the 2015-16 Augustana men. Led by All-American Hunter Hill and eight seniors, it was one of the strongest, most talented squads in recent memory. Still, they came up short, dropping a home game to eventual champions St. Thomas in the round of eight.
As disappointing as that loss was for those players and the program, the freshmen and sophomores on that team formed the backbone for Augustana’s final four run last year and stand to make a strong run this season, having graduated only one.
Come march, though, it may be another team we’re talking about, celebrating on the floor in Salem and scooping up the confetti as a complement to the Walnut and Bronze. That is the magic of a new season; nearly 900 teams with the future wide open before them, all chasing down a dream.
As CNU’s Broderick says, “We were picked second in our own conference and we finished fourth in the country. You just never know what’s going to happen.”