As Women’s Basketball teams across the nation prepare themselves for the exciting whirlwind that March basketball always is, two teams finished their romp through the 2015-16 season undefeated.
Lubbock Christian University’s balanced game proves untouchable
The transformation is complete. No longer a provisional NAIA transitioning team to DII, the LCU Lady Chaps won the Heartland Conference regular season title behind an 18-0 record. When added to their flawless 8-0 out of conference record, LCU was a perfect 26-0 on the season and are heading to their first postseason.
“At the beginning of the year, everyone had high expectations of us,” redshirt senior guard Kelsey Hoppel said. “It’s hard not to think about that, you don’t want to disappoint people. But that’s one of our strong suits, just not thinking that we're No. 1. We just go into each game ready to play that game, not thinking that we are unstoppable because we know we are.”
It isn’t the first time that LCU would sweep through the Heartland Conference undefeated. 2013 -- their debut as members of the conference -- saw them finish at a perfect 20-0. Last season, they would capture a share of the conference regular season title as well. However, they would not see the postseason — despite proving more than worthy — as they transitioned from the NAIA to DII.
“I never would have thought when we started this journey back in September that we would be undefeated right now,” redshirt senior point guard Nicole Hampton said. “We try not to get caught up in the hype about being number one, and just stay level-headed.”
Despite the knowledge that this talented and close-knit team would not be able to be postseason eligible for two years, LCU would not relent from their ultimate goal of one day being ready to compete for a national title. Seniors Nicole Hampton and Kelsey Hoppel would have to make the difficult choice of redshirting and sticking around to see the results or graduating and moving on from basketball.
“It was a hard decision, but I am definitely glad Nicole and I made the decision to redshirt,” guard Kelsey Hoppel said. “It’s paid off. This year has been so fun, it’s a great team all around. I don’t want it to end yet, I won’t be satisfied until we make it to that last game. I’m just really blessed that I got to stay for it.”
This team has been a unified squad from day one that has reached amazing heights this season under the leadership of head coach Steve Gomez. The Lady Chaps are the seventh best scoring team in the nation (82.8 points a night), the second best scoring defense in the nation (52.3 points a contest) for the nation’s best scoring margin — an astounding 30.5 points a night separating them from their opponents. Yet, they have not a single player averaging more than 15 points a game on the squad.
“It’s so fun to be a part of a team that works together,” Hoppel said. “It’s cool that we have so many people that can score instead of having to look to one person every night. I think we have done a really great job of sharing the ball. It’s nice to have that chemistry on the court, and off of it as well.”
“I look forward to game days,” Hampton added. “I get to go out there, it’s a stress free and fun game that we get to play. Coach Gomez set that atmosphere for us. The way we connect and flow with each other is like a family. It shows that it doesn’t take one person, but all five of us to be at our highest level.”
Now they eagerly await Thursday’s tip-off in the Heartland Conference Tournament, a quarterfinals matchup against Texas-Permian Basin. As the No. 1 ranked school in the land as well as in the South Central Region, they hope to land a No. 1 seeding in their first ever NCAA tournament as well. To say the excitement level amongst the Chaps is high would be the understatement of the year.
“We are thrilled,” Hampton said. “You look at it and there are only four of us that have ever been to a conference tournament. That means there are about 10 or 11 of us that have never been to a tournament before or anything postseason. To get to experience that with them is a true blessing. I think it’s a bonus for us that a lot of girls haven’t got to experience in a way that they won't want to settle for anything and take each game as its own.”
Kellyn Schneider, Haley Fowler, and Blair Taylor join Hampton and Hoppel as the core seniors who committed to winning and taking this program to the next level. Finding themselves on the cusp of their first postseason on the heels of an undefeated regular season Heartland championship made that wait worth the time.
“My freshman year seems like forever ago,” Hoppel said. “We went through NAIA, now it’s on to the NCAAs. It’s crazy that I have been through this growth of our school and our program. I’m blessed that I saw that happen through my years here. It’s definitely rewarding.”
“Coming in as a freshman I got to play with my sister and that was the start of it all. Going to the NAIA semi-finals was where we all started,” Hampton added. “Each year I learned more about basketball but also about family and Christian lifestyle. I think not getting too caught up in just basketball, but enjoying each year as its own, and wanting to grow and learn more with my teammates has led us to this successful year. In everything we do we want everyone right beside each other.”
Limestone sets their eyes on the prize
Head coach Corey Fox has turned the Limestone Saints program into one of the premier Women’s Basketball powerhouses in DII. They have won 25 or more games in each of the past five seasons. Last season the Saints went on an amazing run, finishing with a program-best record of 34-2 before their run ended in the national semifinals against California Baptist.
“I’ve been really fortunate and have a great group of kids,” Fox said. “The last five years have been an amazing run that we are on, but we are right in the middle of it right now, and we’re just trying to survive and advance.”
This season has been more of the same. For the second straight year, they swept through the CC with a perfect conference record and finished the regular season 27-0.
“We had a really good regular season, but we still have a lot of work to do,” Fox said. “We’re looking forward to hopefully playing our best basketball this month. Our region is really good, we know we have to play better to keep on advancing.”
One would think that a team coming off the greatest season in program history and losing six impact players, Limestone would possibly take a step backwards. Instead, they elevated their play to the next level, reaching yet another program first, an undefeated season.
Leading the way was junior Jasmine Kearse. Kearse — who earned Preseason All American honors — is averaging 21.4 points a night, tops in the conference and good for fifth in the nation.“I don’t think there’s any doubt that Jas is the best player in the conference,” Fox said. “She’s been outstanding. We put a little bit of the scoring load and play making on her early on, but as the season has progressed, and everybody has gotten more established in their roles, we’re more comfortable.”
While Lester may have looked like an seasoned veteran after averaging 14.7 points and 5.4 rebounds a night, her journey to a starter in this lineup has been nothing short of fascinating.
“It was really great,” Lester said. “My freshman year I didn’t get to play as much, and my sophomore year I broke my leg. Last year was the first year I could make an impact on the court, so I this year I just tried to continue it since it will be the last time I am going to get to play.”
Lester is now the senior leader of the No. 2 ranked team in the nation. Her list of accolades off the court over the years — she was the first Saint to ever receive the NCAA Elite 89 Award and continues to mount up endless All Academic honors — is arguably more impressive than all that she has accomplished on the court. She truly has fought her way to the top, and her success as the starter both Lester and Fox once envisioned she could be is the Saints true reward.
“Maurissa, she’s gotten better every year,” Fox said. “Last year she was really good at her role as the team’s “seventh man”. We knew coming into this year we needed her to become more of a scorer and an attacker, and she was ready to take on that responsibility.
“She sets a great tone for our team and our program. She’s in the middle of almost every activity on campus. She’s had an even better year off the court with all of her academic awards and everything she has done within the school.”
Lester and Kearse may have been the scoring leaders, but this team got to where they are with a group of players committed to their roles. Whether it was Amber Wright ripping down a team best 210 rebounds on the season, or Amaura Brandt burying another three behind her Conference Carolinas-best .520 3-point percentage, this team was deep and played as a collective whole.
It was all on display in Limestone’s Conference Carolinas quarterfinals victory over Belmont Abbey Monday night — a game that would see Kearse set the Limestone single-season scoring record. They rose victorious 91-51.“We play together so well, we have so many different weapons,” Lester said. “[Monday night], they went to guard certain people at certain times, but no matter what they did, somebody hit a three. We know where each other is going to be. If I’m driving down, I know I can drive in and go for a layup or I know Jas is going to be running down right alongside of me. We have great team chemistry.”
Last year’s terrific season would end in the final four. Lester has seen this program evolve under Fox’s tutelage and the only thing the two are missing is a National Championship.
“It would be really exciting,” Fox said of bringing Limestone the title. “When you come back from the summer, you try to get to that point where you can win a National Championship. Our kids have been tremendous and have played really hard. We know we have to take the next step and play our hardest in March.”
“I feel like it has been long time coming. It dates all the way back to middle school,” Lester laughed. “Limestone was the perfect situation for me. I was able to grow as a basketball player, but also as a person. I could do things inside the classroom, outside the classroom and obviously where I wanted to be — playing basketball. The fact that we we’ve been able to improve makes it all better.”