Surprise, surprise!

More news about: Chapman | Marietta
Look out below! AJ Edwards and Marietta are off to a flying start.
Marietta file photo 

I know they’ve been covered to death so far, but Marietta College men’s basketball is the surprise of the season so far in D3hoops. They defeated pre-season No. 2 Christopher Newport at the Hoopsville Classic and then beat No. 7 Wooster, both by more than 20 points. None of their games were competitive at the end.

Marietta became what I expected of Ohio Wesleyan and vice versa. Both teams lost four seniors, but only one of OWU’s started versus three for the Pioneers. The Battling Bishops returned most of the statistical production from a Sweet 16 squad, including floor leader Nate Axelrod. While Marietta does bring back All-American AJ Edwards, they had a lot of question marks about who would step up to lead.

I voted Marietta ninth in the preseason, with Ohio Wesleyan fifth. There was just more reason to be confident in one pick over the other; results worked out differently. Capital and Illinois Wesleyan are both good basketball teams, but back-to-back home losses is not what most people expected from the Battling Bishops in November.

“Quite frankly, my expectations were just as high as the voters,” said Ohio Wesleyan head coach Mike DeWitt. “I think the issue we’re having is our returning guys are in different roles and sometimes it takes people longer to adjust to new roles than others. It’s taking us a little longer than I thought it would.”

I’ve still got OWU in my Top 25 (albeit much lower), but after a loss to Otterbein on Tuesday, it can’t last. Still, Ohio Wesleyan has a strong conference schedule and plenty of time to show what they can do, or it might just be another example of chemistry not carrying over from year to year, even if they players do.

Marietta beat my preseason top pick and did so handily. As poorly as CNU played in that game, much of the credit has to go to excellent defense. “I’ve been at Marietta for ten years; that was the best defensive game I’ve seen our team play,” said Pioneers coach John VanderWal after the victory, “We just told our guys to go out there and let it rip. By halftime, my guys knew they belonged.”

Belong they do. I’ve given the Pioneers my No. 1 vote in the Top 25 poll this week. Given their schedule and how they played it, the choice wasn’t as difficult as I expected it to be. I was skeptical of Marietta’s ability to adjust early on, but the Pioneers looked like a deeper, more confident, more disciplined version of CNU – what else could I do? Division III basketball is always full of surprises and Marietta is one early on. They’ve proven me, and many others, very wrong so far.

Another team to watch on the men’s side is East Texas Baptist, which started 4-0. Their schedule hasn’t been the toughest, but they beat Concordia (Texas) 100-96 last week in a game where both teams brought mid-season form. Texas Lutheran is the other contender for best team in Texas and they play the Tigers at the end of the month.

Denison brought back most of the team that went 17-12 last year, finishing fourth in the competitive NCAC. The Big Red started this season 5-0, including a 65-59 road win at No. 11 Wooster Wednesday night. Jett Speelman is averaging 20 points and six rebounds per game to pace the Big Red. With the traditional NCAC powers struggling early, the conference could be Denison’s for the taking.

One final surprise on the men's side. With the addition of Nebraska Wesleyan this season, the IIAC, often middle of the pack, might just be poised to break out. As of midweek the IIAC was ranked fourth nationally in non-conference record at 24-10, with three undefeated teams. Even 1-4 Luther has a win over UW-La Crosse, who’s receiving votes in the Top 25 poll. Conference play tipped off with Buena Vista beating defending champions Dubuque 91-79.

Megan Charles scored 22 points against eighth ranked George Fox.
Chapman athletics photo by Larry Newman

The women’s side typically lacks the same surprises as the men. Teams at the top aren’t often challenged early. There were only seven total losses by Top 25 teams to lower ranked (or unranked) opponents so far. Top-ranked Tufts and No. 2 Amherst both played close games and No. 4 Scranton had been winning by huge margins. Outside the close win at No. 11 Rochester, every Royals game was decided by at least 36 points until they struggled to beat Neumann Wednesday. Still, those are mild surprises at best.

Editor's note: On the same night that this column was released, Sul Ross State recorded the biggest upset of the Division III women's basketball season. The Lobos defeated No. 3 Texas-Tyler 67-66.

Most surprising might be a team currently 1-2 with no d3 wins. The Chapman women forced #3 Texas-Tyler down to the last possession and hung tough with #8 George Fox throughout. “We’ve played George Fox 10-12 times in my career and we’ve only beaten them once; we’re still trying to find the formula,” says Panthers head coach, Carol Jue, “It’s a great gauge for us when we go into the conference.”

Just 13-13 last season, Chapman was picked second in the SCIAC, but with their performance so far and the early struggles from top choice (and Jue’s alma mater) Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, the conference could very well be up for grabs. “You can play with anybody in the nation if you put your mind to it,” says Jue, and they’ve scheduled to prove it. Chapman plays the fast-paced offense of North Central and perennial 20-win team Wisconsin Lutheran in Hawaii in December, then returns home to host Amherst on the 29th. “In anyone will come to Southern Cal, we’ll play them,” notes Jue, issuing the challenge “Go visit Disneyland, visit the beaches, get tired, then come play us.”

Chapman’s tallest player is 5’9", which made the matchup with George Fox’s 6’3” Kaitlin Jamieson difficult, but the Panthers were still within two points at the start of the final period. “In that fourth quarter they executed,” says Jue, “They were 8-for-10 in shooting. We had to pick our poison. When we doubled the post, they hit shots we were guarding in the first three quarters.”

Basically, George Fox did what good teams do down the stretch. It’s that kind of learning experience Chapman is seeking to find with such a tough schedule. Still, to be a real surprise, the Panthers have to win some of these marquee matchups. They will get plenty of chances.

As will Elmhurst and UW-Whitewater, two teams from power conferences off to undefeated starts. The 6-0 Warhawks made their way into the Top 25, but have two full weeks off before playing Coe on December 10, plus an always tough WIAC schedule to come. The Bluejays, also 6-0, have been dominating a relatively weak schedule, but with conference play kicking off this Saturday against battle-tested and 19th ranked Wheaton (Ill.), they’ll have to prove they are for real right away.

Breaking the streak

The Mary Baldwin women’s team defeated Wesleyan (Ga.) 43-42 on Saturday, claiming their first win in 106 contests. Anna Ramirez led the Squirrels with 15 points. With that streak over, Illinois Tech now holds the longest winless string at 52 games. On the men’s side, Curry College is currently 0 for their last 30 and looking to change their fortunes against Roger Williams this Saturday.

A sad note

Jane Baron died peacefully on May 1, 2016 at the age of 46, after a year-long battle with pancreatic cancer. Jane was the ex-wife and best friend of Gwynedd-Mercy men’s basketball coach, John Baron. They continued to have a warm and healthy relationship following their divorce, raising their two children, Jaylen (14) and JP (12), together and co-owning the studio where Jane taught dance.

Dave McHugh interviewed Baron about Jane’s struggle with cancer during last season’s Hoopsville marathon and again when Gwynedd-Mercy completed a surprise first round upset of Marietta in the NCAA Tournament. Gwynedd Mercy hosted a six-team Coaches vs Cancer Classic on Saturday, where the Griffins defeated a feisty Baruch College squad 91-73.

“The city six here in Philly have probably been the most involved of the basketball world [in Coaches vs Cancer] with Fran Dunphy and Phil Martelli,” said Baron, “Throughout the years I’ve gone to numerous events and they’ve always said, ‘We all know somebody who’s been touched by this terrible disease,’ and ironically I really hadn’t, prior to this year; no one in my immediate family or close friends.”

Neumann University started this Philadelphia area Division III Coaches vs Cancer event and offered Baron and Gwynedd Mercy the chance to host it this season. Baron said of the experience, “It’s another small way we can give back to honor Jane’s memory. We’re trying to get something even bigger together with our conference [the CSAC] and the CUNYAC for next year – not just for Jane, but for Coaches vs Cancer in general.” 

A GoFundMe account benefitting the Baron children’s education fund is still accepting donations. Please click here to donate.

Ryan Scot

Ryan Scott serves as the lead columnist for and previously wrote the Mid-Atlantic Around the Region column in 2015 and 2016. He's a long-time D-III basketball supporter and former player currently residing in Middletown, Del., where he serves as a work-at-home dad, doing freelance writing and editing projects. He has written for multiple publications across a wide spectrum of topics. Ryan is a graduate of Eastern Nazarene College.
Previous columnists:
2014-16: Rob Knox
2010-13: Brian Falzarano
2010: Marcus Fitzsimmons
2008-2010: Evans Clinchy
Before 2008: Mark Simon