The Hendrix College women, who have been accustomed to closing out the season with a limp in recent years, have acquired a swagger.
The Warriors (19-4, 12-3) enter the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference tournament in Jackson, Miss. on the wave of one of the most successful regular seasons in program history. They have earned the school’s first division championship and are the first team in Hendrix history to enter a postseason tournament with a No. 1 seed. No Hendrix team has ever played for an SCAC tournament title (Hendrix has only won two tournament games in its women’s history), but the Warriors are entering the tourney, which begins today, on a roll and are rated as having the best shot at reaching Sunday’s title game as any basketball team in Hendrix history.
Last year when the SCAC tourney was in Conway, the Warriors entered the tourney with a 14-11 mark off a roller-coaster season, and gave perennial power DePauw a spirited battle before losing in the first round. Then, within the next week, coach Chris Hitchcock suddenly resigned for personal reasons.
The foundation for what has happened this season occurred two hours after Hitchcock resigned when Thad McCracken, the men’s assistant for three seasons, was named to head the women’s program. McCracken and the Hendrix were familiar with each other because the men’s teams and women’s teams travel together on the long road trips in the SCAC. Seniors Chelsey White and Lindsay Merritt had worked with McCracken’s wife, Jennifer, in the college’s intramural program.
"Coach (Thad) McCracken was a real friend to us for three years," said White. "When we needed guidance or there was something we were not sure about in basketball or in college, he was the coach we went to. He became a mentor to us. He was a natural fit for him to become our coach. I wouldn’t call him a father figure, but we all respected his guidance."
"It was a very comforting feeling when we learned he was going to be our coach," said Christina Byler, one of the team’s four seniors who is the Warriors’ leading scorer and rebounder. "When coach Hitchcock resigned, I went from ‘Oh my gosh, what will happen?’ to being so excited. We all trusted him."
"We really appreciate how he can break down the game," said Amanda Morris, the team’s other senior. "He has taught us the finer points of basketball that no one has to this point. And coaching girls is hard because you get a lot of emotion and sentimentality, but coach understands all that and he works through all that to motivate and teach us."
"He’s made it fun," said Merritt, "Right off the bat, he told us that this is work but it also should be fun. We’re not on scholarship. We are playing college basketball because we want to and it’s not worth it if we don’t have fun doing it."
And anyone who has watched this Hendrix team knows the women are having fun, particularly the seniors, who have endured several so-so and frustrating seasons.
They enter this year’s tournament like kids at Christmas time. They are not only happy to be in the field, but they expect to make a serious run at the championship, which carries an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III playoffs.
"The difference is confidence," said Merritt. "This year, we whipped Oglethorpe (today’s first-round oppoenent). We had never beaten them while I was here and we whipped them. We swept Trinity (another perennial power) and we hadn’t beaten them in San Antonio in 10 years. That was an intense game. Most of our parents were down there and it’s was a thrill to finally beat Trinity on its home court."
"A lot of us have been through a lot and have had to rehabilitate from injuries," said Morris, who lost a season because of an ACL injury her sophomore year. "What happened this season is something we have been working for four years. After all we’ve been through and after we’ve been at ground zero, we felt it was our time. This makes all the work worthwhile. People have no idea what this means to win this year."
"We have momentum and confidence in each other as teammates," White said. "We’ve never entered the tournament this healthy or fired of. No one is down. We all pick each other up."
"This means a lot to us because it means a lot to the school," said Byler, who also sat out a season with injury and will return for a final season of eligibility next year. "This caps off what we have been working for for three years. What we have accomplished reflects the hours of hard work we’ve put in. It makes it all worth it."
McCracken couldn’t be prouder of the results so far, particularly in the leadership of four seniors.
"Ever since I came in here, these seniors have shown a strong work ethic and have been willing to do everything I’ve said wihtout question," McCracken said. "But what has really been impressive is how the seniors have taken a leadership role in developing a big sophomore class that is is getting better and better.
"And we’re playing well with good chemistry. I break the conference season in three categories: We play people in our division once, then we play the teams in the other division, then we play our division again. We were 4-1 in each section. We didn’t back into anything. We earned a division championship and a No. 1 seed. I remember when we played DePauw earlier. I think we were a little bit in awe because DePauw plays with such confidence and they are always great, has won a national championship recently and are a national power every year. With a team like that, sometimes you have a tendency to forget how good you are. As the season has gone on, I’ve seen our girls’ confidence go up. They are starting to understand what it takes to build a program."
"I don’t think we’ve played our best game yet as a team," said White. "We can see now that everyone is doing their part and playing better and better."
"For the first time, I feel that we are really strong going into the tournament," said Morris. "It’s nice to go out knowing your part of something that hasn’t been accomplished before, that this is a team people will point to in the future."
I think we’ve put ourselves in great position to win a championship," said Byler.
"We know we’ve going get a banner in our gym," said Merritt. "But we want still want more. We want to be the team that brings home a conference championship,"
It was pointed out that the upstart Hendrix baseball team won the college’s first men’s championship last season in Jackson in a tournament hosted by Millsaps.
"We have a precedent," said Merritt.