Wheel of Fortune at New Paltz

More news about: SUNY New Paltz
The Hawks weren't satisfied by last year's NCAA appearance. They want to make noise in March. 
SUNY-New Paltz Athletics photo

By Andrew Lovell

The New Paltz women's basketball team just had the most impressive weekend in program history, earning its first two NCAA tournament victories en route to a berth in the Sweet 16. Never before have consecutive wins meant so much for the Hawks.

Yet for senior Kit Small and freshman Paige Niemeyer, the weekend was slightly sweeter. You see, they didn't just go 2-0; they went 3-0. Confused? The third win came during a team-wide $25,000 Pyramid competition over the weekend. And you better believe Small and Niemeyer wanted another "W."

"Whether it's practice or whether it's board games, or whatever we're playing on the bus or in the hotel, they just get lost in the moment in terms of competition," New Paltz head coach Jamie Seward said. "That's what we've always wanted this program to be about, and I think this team, more than any other we've had, really embraces that."

That competitive, do-whatever-it-takes-to-win mentality has permeated the Hawks' program this season. It's apparent during rounds of Family Feud and the Newlywed Game -- the latter of which, Small admitted, she and Paige recently lost -- and it's certainly apparent on the basketball court -- New Paltz has won 15 of its last 16, including the SUNYAC tournament title game against previously-undefeated Geneseo, since a 5-7 start to the season.

The Hawks won the SUNYAC tournament title last season and made their second NCAA appearance under Seward, now in his 11th season as head coach. But New Paltz's stay was short-lived, ending in the first round with a loss to Rowan. The taste of March basketball was delicious, but Small said this season's returning players wanted a bigger meal. That message was ingrained, early and often, in the seven incoming freshmen.

"They weren't just happy to be [in the NCAA tournament] either," Small said. "We wanted to see how far we can go."

The Hawks' six returning players -- seniors Small, forward Courtney Irby and forward Morgan Roessler; junior guard Jasmine Bryant; and sophomore guards Lindsay Bettke and Taylor Howell -- each read the book Lone Survivor, the harrowing and inspirational tale of a group of U.S. Navy SEALs in Afghanistan, prior to the start of the season. The team then adopted the concept of "swim buddies," a tradition that links SEALs together in pairs of twos for purposes of training, support and accountability. In the SEALs, swim buddies never separate -- they are a team.

Each incoming freshman was paired with one of New Paltz's returners, thus creating immediate bonds between new teammates that have been strengthened through a season full of competition. However, that camaraderie didn't instantly translate to wins, as the Hawks dropped seven of their first 12 games, a stretch that culminated with a lopsided 78-50 loss at Ithaca on Jan. 10.

Senior Kit Small is prepared to win, whether it's on the court or in a board game.
SUNY-New Paltz Athletics photo 

Seward attributed the slow start to a few different circumstances. First, the Hawks lost Bryant, the team's top shooter, defender, and overall perimeter player, to a season-ending knee injury prior to the start of the season. Bryant's absence left New Paltz with a dearth of experienced wing players and, as a result, forced several freshmen in major roles right away.

The results were mixed. New Paltz started the season 3-1, which included a solid victory against Hartwick, but then dropped six of its next eight games. The seniors tried to do too much, and the first-year players hit the freshman wall. It was after the loss to Ithaca that assistant coach and former player Colleen Ames made a crucial suggestion to Seward.

"She suggested after the Ithaca game that maybe we should move Sandi Harris into the starting lineup," Seward said. "It just kind of gave us more balance, as far as a personnel standpoint."

Harris, a 5-foot-5 freshman guard, replaced Roessler, a 6-foot senior forward, in the Hawks' starting five moving forward. Seward said the team also made minor tweaks to its X's-and-O's strategy, and the first-year players found a second wind, but since that lineup change in mid-January, the Hawks have only lost once.

Every player on the roster has played a role in the Hawks' success this season. Freshman guard Marion Dietz has started 23 of the New Paltz's 28 games, and ranks third in minutes per game (28.4). Niemeyer, a 6-foot forward, has started 18 games and ranks fourth in rebounds per game (4.9). Freshman forward Maddie Van Pelt, who joined the team later in the season because of her commitment to the New Paltz volleyball team, has emerged as a versatile defender, to the point that she forced Ithaca senior standout Ali Ricchiuti to miss a crucial shot late in Saturday's NCAA tournament rematch.

Players like Howell and freshman Brianna Alberga have limited roles on the court, but remain important away from the spotlight, in practices and, of course, during those heated game show competitions. Freshman forward Philesha Teape has averaged just 7.0 minutes per game this season, but she has pushed Small -- sometimes quite literally -- with her intensity and physicality during practices.

The play of the underclassmen has helped bring out the best in Bettke, Roessler, Irby, and Small. Bettke, a naturally-gifted offensive talent, transitioned from an instant-offense reserve as a freshman to the Hawks' primary ball handler as a sophomore. Seward said Bettke has made more momentum-stopping baskets against opponents -- including in the SUNYAC title game against Geneseo and the NCAA second round against Ithaca -- than he can count.

"If there was one person that really was key to turning things around, it was her," Seward said of Bettke.

Roessler, a standout on the New Paltz volleyball team, was recruited by Seward out of high school, but opted to play volleyball exclusively for her first two years at the college. She joined the basketball team last season, and has blossomed into a key post player.

But it is Roessler's two classmates, Small and Irby, that stand out as the team's heartbeat. Small, a 5-foot-10 guard/forward, and Irby, a 6-foot forward, arrived at New Paltz in 2013 on the heels of the program's first-ever NCAA berth. However, graduation and other unforeseen departures hit the program hard, leaving the Hawks' with a depleted roster and some serious growing pains. Small and Irby played major roles from Day One, but the team struggled to a 6-19 finish, the only losing season in Seward's tenure.

The following year, New Paltz's season ended in the SUNYAC tournament semifinals. The year after that, the first round of the NCAA tournament. This year ... well, who knows?

"It's pretty cool how each season has gotten better and better and we've gotten further and further as the years have gone on," Small said.

In New Paltz's win against Oneonta on Jan. 14, the Hawks' first win in its 15-for-16 streak, Small surpassed Robin Shields as the program's all-time leading scorer. Small also ranks third all-time in blocks, while Irby ranks second all-time in rebounds, but Seward said the duo's impact is felt far beyond the numbers.

"I've come to rely on them so much over the last four years," Seward said. "I told them that I've never had two players that from such a young age I just trusted wholeheartedly."

When New Paltz travels to Amherst, Mass., this coming weekend for its Sweet 16 matchup against Mass-Dartmouth, it will have a game plan in place for a tough opponent. But the Hawks will also make time for their own competition in the form of a yet-undecided game during downtime at the hotel. Competition is in the players' blood, and it's gotten them this far -- why change now?

"We never doubted the talent that this team had," Seward said, "but to their credit, they trusted what we were doing that was going to ultimately be able to bring that talent together."