Around the Region
Titans back in national contention
|Ehresman provides leadership while benefitting from her younger teammates' maturity and talent.
Photo by Tom Dittmer
By Adam Turer
Rebekah Ehresman and Molly McGraw committed to a championship program.
They did not expect to finish their first season at Illinois Wesleyan with a losing record.
Now seniors, Ehresman and McGraw have completed the turnaround, from a 10-15 rebuilding campaign as rookies to a 19-3 record and sole possession of first place in the CCIW with three regular season games remaining in their careers.
The bumpy road they navigated as freshmen paved the way for their success as juniors and seniors. Both players contributed significantly from the moment they set foot on campus. Ehresman started 23 games as a freshman while McGraw earned third team all-conference honors. They made their mark early and have continued to improve each season.
“Neither one of them wanted to be at a program that was just average,” said Titans head coach Mia Smith. “We knew that that year would be a rebuilding year. They knew coming in that they would have a lot of opportunities to make our program better.”
Both players earned All-Central Region honors following their junior season. Most importantly, they led Illinois Wesleyan back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 2011-2012 national championship season. While the Titans bowed out in the first round, the experience set the stage for an even more memorable senior season.
|McGraw is leading the team in scoring for the fourth straight season.
Photo by Tom Dittmer
“It was such a new experience for all of us. The whole process is different,” said Ehresman. “Getting a little taste of that, we were all so excited just being there. Now, we’d really like to capitalize on that and try to make a run.”
The Titans have already reached a new level of success this season. A challenging non-conference schedule produced victories over now-No. 11 Chicago and now-No. 24 Rose-Hulman and narrow losses to now-No. 14 UW-Whitewater and perennial power Washington U.
“We enjoy playing those tough teams because it really prepares us for conference play,” said Ehresman. “This year, the CCIW is down a little bit, but having those tough games at the beginning of the season really gets us ready for the end of the season.”
Those games set the stage for what became a 16-game winning streak and included an 11-0 start in conference play.
“I really think everything was just clicking,” said Ehresman of the streak. “We were playing really well as a team. I don’t think any other year we played this well as a team.”
This year’s roster is deep and balanced, with 11 players averaging over 11 minutes per game. Eight different players average over seven points per game, with junior Maddie Merritt joining McGraw and Ehresman in double figures. Five players average over four rebounds per game. Ehresman is the facilitator with 4.8 assists per game.
The team’s depth is most reflected in its strength: defense. The Titans allow just 61.6 points per game and are winning by an average margin of 23.8 points.
“We have great depth. If somebody is off, there is a replacement who could come in and pick up for them,” said Smith. “There were points in ballgames last year where I felt we were going in different directions. This year’s team works better together. They’re more cohesive and their ability to connect with each other sets them apart.”
That camaraderie is influenced in a big way by the two seniors who are the rare Titans players to know struggle and defeat under Smith. In her 20 seasons at the helm, Smith’s teams have suffered just three losing seasons.
“I hadn’t been used to that sort of an up and down season. I think it was an eye-opener. Molly was the same, we didn’t expect that,” said Ehresman of her freshman season. “Overall, I think it was a good experience. I think it made a world of difference going into our sophomore season. It gave us a ton of experience, but also gave us a chip on our shoulder.”
Now, the seniors have blended in seamlessly with the underclassmen who they credit with taking this team to the next level. The team plays an unselfish style on both ends of the court and the players trust one another.
“I think a lot of it has to do with the freshmen. Their personalities coming in, they’re a great group of girls. They’ve come in and played like seasoned basketball players, not just freshmen,” said Ehresman. “Even in practice or in summer pickup games, a lot of times it’s upperclassmen versus the underclassmen and they hold their own. Having that depth makes it a lot easier on us starters. They really have taken a lot of pressure off of our starters.”
With wins against Millikin, at Carthage, and at Elmhurst, the Titans will clinch their first outright CCIW championship since 2012. A loss at Wheaton on February 7 to snap the 16-game winning streak was disappointing, but the Titans handled the defeat in stride.
“I don’t feel like that game is a bad loss. It still frustrates us,” said Smith. “I don’t think we’re ever going to shoot that poorly again. You’ve got to credit Wheaton for part of that, their defense is always good.”
“We really wanted to go undefeated in conference, so it was frustrating to lose. But I do think that going into conference tournament, it’s better for us to have that loss,” added Ehresman. “I hate saying that, because I do hate to lose.”
All of the Titans’ goals are still in front of them, including clinching the CCIW regular season and tournament titles. Then, these seniors will have their second and final opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament. The expectations are much higher in 2018.
“Last year, that experience was totally different than anything we had done to that point all year. I think last year we didn’t shoot the ball well enough in that game,” said Smith. “This year, I think they’ll be really focused, they’ll know what to expect. This team has high hopes and they should have high hopes because they’re extremely athletic.”
For McGraw and Ehresman, bringing the Titans back into national championship contention was always the goal. Illinois Wesleyan is ranked No. 17 in the latest poll and was No. 14 before the loss to Wheaton. One more victory will give the Titans their first 20-win season since 2011-12. The program has bounced back quickly since that 10-15 rebuilding year when McGraw and Ehresman were freshman. Seventeen wins as sophomores, 18 wins and an NCAA tournament berth as juniors, now 19 wins and counting as seniors. It’s no surprise that the seniors are enjoying their final run at IWU.
“I’m just really happy to have this opportunity. I look back on freshman year and it’s neat to see how far we’ve come, how much we’ve matured, how the team has changed,” said Ehresman. “I’m really excited to be where we are now. We’re all having fun. Morale is really high. We play really unselfishly. We’re very team-oriented and that’s really what’s helped us.”
Adam Turer graduated in 2006 from Washington and Lee University where he was a two-year starter at free safety for the Generals' football team. A contributor to D3football.com since 2007, Adam is now the lead columnist for the site, writing Around the Nation and other national features. He lives in Cincinnati and covers area high school sports in addition to his full-time job as an attorney.
2016-17 columnist: Erik Buchinger
2011-16 columnist: Josh Smith