Pandemic denied Hope women shot at two national titles; it's 'our time'

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Brian Morehouse was admittedly mad, which he feels pretty bad about now.

It was early March 2020, and he had the Hope women's basketball team rolling in the Division III NCAA Tournament. But the tournament was canceled. There was this mysterious disease called coronavirus.

Still fuming a few days later, Morehouse gave his family a 30-minute warning. He decided to drive to Florida to get away from it all — and, perhaps, scream toward the skies on secluded hikes in the panhandle — and anyone who wanted to join him was welcome.

Hope College coach Brian Morehouse.

"I just remember not really understanding COVID two years ago. That's the biggest thing, what is this thing?" Morehouse said after a recent practice. "People are getting the flu. How bad can it be? Just looking back on it, I had some very immature thoughts, just because I didn't know. Then, you get back from Florida, and, wait a second, they're shutting states down. We just made it out of Florida in time to get back in Michigan in time.

"All of a sudden, I've gotta check myself. There's people dying."

Less than a year later, Morehouse was sad — and then mad.

The pandemic still raging, the NCAA again decided to call off the Division III NCAA Tournament, this time announcing the decision early, in February 2021, citing low participation among member schools. Some seemed skeptical. Money seemed the real motivating factor.

The Division I and Division II NCAA Tournaments were played.

"How are we not playing right now?" Morehouse said, relaying his thoughts as he watched the Division I and II tournaments on TV.

Maybe, just maybe, the third time's the charm for a dominant Hope program, which enters this season ranked No. 1 in the nation (again) — and riding a school-record 45-game winning streak. Hope was 29-0 in 2019-20, and 16-0 in 2020-21, yet still is searching for that latest national championship banner.

The Hope women's program won NCAA championships in 1990 and 2006.

Most starters are back from last year's team, and many are still there from two years ago, too. But the players, as painful as it was at the time, don't want to look back — even though that's easier said than done.

"I guess it's comforting knowing we all pushed ourselves to where we wanted to be, but we fell a little short," senior guard Kate Majerus said, as if Hope came up a basket shy in a nailbiter — rather than not actually getting a chance to play for a title at all.

"We all just know that this is our time and this is our year, so we're very excited."

For Hope, based in Holland along Lake Michigan, the work for this season began when last season should've still been going on — in March, tournament time. The NCAA allowed mini spring workouts, four-on-fours, so Hope was back in the gym (the team likes being called "gym rats"), getting better and, perhaps even more important, getting closer.

Many of the team members stayed local, so when they weren't in the gym, they were hanging out, bonding.

"That," said Majerus, "helped us heal from the disappointment."

The bonding hasn't stopped; the team just returned from its annual retreat to the Fremont home of Morehouse's father, Dean, affectionately known as "Biggie," and mother, Jean. The purpose is 24 hours of "culture building," Morehouse said, "and laying the groundwork for a win-everything mind set." During practice, Hope players are wearing "WE" on the back of their jerseys, which works on two levels — for "win everything" and the togetherness attitude, which perhaps has never been more important than now, given what's been taken away.

Two years ago, when COVID-19 struck, all college athletes were in the same situation — actually, all athletes, everywhere. Everything was canceled.

Last year, Division III took hit the hit, while others played on. That wasn't easy to understand.

But they got through it together, and have moved on.

"Right now, we're really focused on looking forward and not really about what could've happened in the past," said Olivia Voskuil, a senior forward from Holland Christian.

It's why, while there was early talk in 2020 about raising a banner at Hope anyway, that hasn't happened. Best to look ahead.

Looking forward, Hope sees more expectations — maybe even greater expectations, knowing that the NCAA Tournament almost certainly will be played and completed this year, for the first time since 2019. That season, Hope lost in the second round. Hope sees the present as a chance to make things right.

That's a lot of pressure. Not that pressure's a bad thing.

"Everyone does feel the pressure that comes with that," Voskuil said, speaking of the winning streak and the No. 1 preseason ranking. "We're trying to take the pressure and make it an exciting and a positive thing, versus, 'Oh, no,' and have it debilitate us.

"We're acknowledging the pressure and turning it toward something good."

Hope's Olivia Voskuil is guarded by Ferris State's Chloe Idoni in an exhibition game.

Hope played its first game of the season Oct. 29, winning an exhibition, 69-60, over Division II Ferris State. It plays its first regular-season game Friday against Edgewood in a season-opening tournament. MIAA play begins Dec. 1 at home against rival Calvin at DeVos Fieldhouse, where fans will be back (for sure) and players' masks will be gone (they hope).

It expects to again feature a balanced scoring attack. The team averaged a whopping 86.7 points a game last season, with only one player, guard Kenedy Schoonveld (Zeeland), averaging double figures (10.2). Guard Sydney Muller (Grand Rapids Christian) averaged 9.4, and Voskuil 9.3. Thirteen of the 18 players on last season's roster averaged more than four points a game, with Majerus at 6.1. Voskuil led the team in rebounds (6.3), steals (2.3) and blocks (2.1).

All those players are back, including three (Voskuil, UM engineering; Schoonveld, Baylor social work; and Muller, PA school) who've already been accepted into graduate programs elsewhere. Overall, 11 of 16 return from last season, with the addition of five freshmen.

"We don't want to talk about two years ago, or last year," said Morehouse, the head coach at his alma mater since 1996, and whose team hasn't lost a game in nearly 1,000 days. "We want to recognize the fact that a lot of people thought enough of us to vote us No. 1. Yes, that's pressure, but it's also an opportunity.

"It's our job every day to live up to that ranking and practice like a really good basketball team that's ranked highly. We want to go in and have a championship-level practice every single day, that gives us the best chance, puts us in a position to hopefully play our best basketball in March.

"Well, A, play in March, and B, hopefully play well. That's a good way to look at it."

Really, there's no other way to look at it.

The madness and sadness are part of the history, but that's not the story anymore.

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Twitter: @tonypaul1984