From fourth place to the Final Four

More news about: George Fox

Dacia Heckendorf and her teammate, Jami Morris, don't really remember the blur of the 2012 national title game. But they're ready to live it again in the 2015 Final Four.
Photo by B. Scott Presley, d3photography.com

By Rob Knox
D3sports.com

Even though the George Fox women’s basketball team entered the season with experienced and talented players, the Bruins were probably picked fourth in the preseason poll for the ultra-competitive Northwest Conference because they had more questions than a standardized test.

“We had so many question marks this season,” George Fox coach Michael Meek said. “I didn’t think we were a fourth-place team and I could see a lot of good things happening for the team this year. I am glad they have had this type of season. Knowing the talent and the character of the players we had returning, we knew we had the potential to a do a lot better.

“We’ve generally been always picked to finish first, so this was something different and something as a staff we were able to use as motivation. We had a chance to be better than that.”

Let’s just say that the Bruins have slightly exceeded those preseason prognostications. All George Fox (31-0 overall) has accomplished during a special season is go undefeated, escape its rugged conference and advance to its third Final Four in program history, its first since 2012.

“We had a lot to prove this year,” senior forward Dacia Heckendorf said. “Our focus has been to go 1-0 in every game. We knew at the start of the season that this was our last chance to get back to the Final Four. It’s been really special to do that with this type of team. This year, our team has done a really good job of buying into what the team has needed, finding their role and sacrificing certain things. It’s been special and we’ve all focused on the things that we’ve been able to control this year.”

George Fox will meet Montclair State (30-1) in the second game of Friday’s national semifinal doubleheader at Calvin College at 7:30 p.m. Eastern. Thomas More (31-0) will meet Tufts (29-1) in the opening game at 5 p.m. The winners will play Saturday for the Division III national championship.

Ironically, Montclair State opened the season by defeating Northwest Conference members Lewis & Clark and Willamette. So despite being on opposite coasts, Montclair and George Fox have common opponents, which is a rarity in Division III at the Final Four.

Who will win the women's national title?
George Fox
Montclair State
Thomas More
Tufts

Heckendorf and senior Jami Morris (then Jami Roos) were members of the 2012 team that lost in the national title game to Illinois Wesleyan, 57-48. They were key contributors during the Bruins’ run to the championship game that year as freshmen.

“We don’t remember playing in either of those games and it was such a blur,” Morris said. “Beating Amherst in the semifinals felt like the championship for us. That next night we lost and, I re-watched the game a year later and I didn’t remember anything. What I remember the most are the memories of the entire week leading up to the Final Four, the social, the banquet with our families and the journey to the Final Four with our teammates. The games were such a blur.”

Morris and Heckendorf did everything in their power to make sure George Fox returned to the Final Four this season. They didn’t want their teammates to miss out on what they felt as freshmen.

“The experience is what we wanted to come back for,” Morris said. “The memories that are made during this week are what you’re going to remember for the rest of your life. Basketball is just a game. The experience of being here is awesome. We just love being around each other.”

George Fox has the unique advantage of being the unofficial welcoming committee for the three other schools arriving later this week despite being 2,306 miles from its Newberg, Ore., campus. Since George Fox won the sectionals at Calvin, site of this weekend’s Final Four, a decision was made to keep the Bruins in Grand Rapids.

Jami Morris averaged double-digit scoring as a freshman for George Fox in 2012 and is three points shy of 1,300 for her career.
Photo by B. Scott Presley, d3photography.com

Once the Bruins fly home on Sunday, they would have spent 10 consecutive days in Grand Rapids. It was something that the Bruins reluctantly had to prepare for as a possibility.

“It was something we had to discuss ahead of time,” Meek said. “Because of travel and all that, we had to have a backup plan in case we did win both games here. It’s one of those decisions where there’s no wrong or right answer. Either way there was pluses and minuses of both of either flying home or staying. We had weigh in how much time we would spend traveling to be home for so little time as well as the cost effectiveness of staying here. There was a lot of back and forth that went into the decision.”

In addition to learning about the Red Hawks and devising schemes to slow down Melissa Tobie and her buddies, the Bruins also have had to balance the demands of completing assignments, taking exams and adjusting to being away from campus for a long period of time. The players are happy to see extended periods of sunshine despite the chilly temperatures, chilling in a hotel and getting meal money. They are practicing at an area high school because they can’t practice on Calvin’s Van Noord Arena floor until the other three teams do on Thursday.

“At least it’s not raining,” quipped Morris. “That’s what we’re used to. I think it’s awesome being here. It gives us time to prepare. However, a big focus for everybody is getting our homework done and taking exams on the road.”

The Bruins did enjoy a day off from basketball and their studies on Sunday. They went to the movies to see “McFarland” as a team. There were some moist eyes during the emotional film.

The high-octane Bruins have driven opponents dizzy and in some cases, to tears, with their relentless full-court pressure defense. They perform best when they are creating organized chaos while the ball is ping-ponging all over the court. George Fox is ranked fifth in scoring margin (23.0) and sixth in both turnover margin (9.19) and in steals per game, averaging 14.4. Eight players average double-digit minutes.

Offensively, George Fox uses a balanced approach led by junior Justine Benner’s 16.5 points per game. The agile yet dominant Benner has been a problem for teams with her athletic ability and size, giving her an advantage on most nights on both ends of the court. Senior Lauren Codling finished the regular season averaging 12.0 points and 11.3 rebounds per game. She has recorded 14 double-doubles on the year and had two games with 20 rebounds apiece.

Morris has been an offensive terror during the Bruins’ tournament run, averaging a team-best 18 points over the four games. She scored 22 points in the second-round win over Puget Sound and 21 markers against Calvin in the sectional final. She holds the record for most threes made in program history with 236. She is second on the team in points per game with an average of 13.8.

Also making strong contributions to this season’s successful team has been junior Nicole Blizzard (5.4 points per game), Sammy Naulai (8.2) along with sophomores Kimberly Frost and Kylie Dummer. Just a thought, the Bruins have frosted their opponents while consistently creating a blizzard of points.

“We have great senior leadership,” Meek said. “We have super-competitive kids who are focused and they have always been that way. They have great work ethic. Jami and Dacia are two kids who have been here before. They knew what it was like and they wanted to be part of the group that got them back here. As much success as they’ve had here, they were driven and hungry to get back here. I don’t think anybody thought we would be undefeated or set that type of goal. Our kids have been amazingly focused.”

Meek didn’t inherit the Earth, but he took over a successful program and raised it to another level. For those not familiar with George Fox’s awesome winning tradition, it has enjoyed 22 consecutive winning seasons, participated in 11 NCAA Tournaments and won 10 Northwest Conference championships. Meek understood the challenge that awaited him when he took over the program. After all, he was used to winning championships as a successful high school girls coach in Oregon.

“Coming into a great program is one of the hardest things and most difficult coaching challenges,” Meek said. “You learn more when you step in. That first month or so was a transition for me the kids that were already there. They brought in quickly to what we’re doing. When things were tough that first year, the kids kept coming together stronger and buy in to what we needed to do.”

One of his assistant coaches, Keisha Gordon was a member of George Fox’s national championship team in 2009. Gordon has served as an inspiration for the current members of this years’ squad that’s a pair of victories away from ordering a matching banner in its gym.

“She’s had a great impact on us and we look up to her,” Heckendorf said. “She’s been a great person to have one the sidelines for us. It’s been such an honor to be on this team. My teammates are such amazing people and it’s so much more than basketball with us. Everybody has such great character. We’ve had a lot of fun this season.”