'A lot of joy': Hope women finally get another crack at NCAA championship
Monday was Sydney Muller's birthday.
And it might as well have been Christmas for the entire Hope women's basketball team.
For the first time since 2019, the NCAA will crown a Division III national champion, and Hope finally will get its shot to put a bow on an epic three-year stretch that has included three Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association titles and a 61-game winning streak.
Hope was denied a chance at the national title in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out all college championships, and were denied again in 2021 when the NCAA pulled the plug on the Division III tournament for a variety of reasons, including financial.
"A lot of joy, for sure," Hope head coach Brian Morehouse said Monday morning, before the bracket reveal, which the team watched together in DeVos Fieldhouse in Holland.
"We finally get a chance to get back into it. It's just so refreshing to not be talking about COVID, and be talking about the NCAA Tournament."
Hope (26-1) earned hosting duties for opening-round games Friday and Saturday, and will open the tournament against Pittsburgh-based La Roche (20-5). The winner of that game gets the winner of Marietta (21-5) and Wittenberg (18-7), a battle of Ohio-based schools.
On the other side of the pod, Illinois-based Millikin (21-6) plays Iowa-based Wartburg (21-5) and Wisconsin-Eau Claire (21-7, and host) plays North Central (24-4) of Minnesota.
The 64-team tournament concludes with the championship game March 19 in Pittsburgh.
"Every weekend is just like a mini tournament," Morehouse said. "The goal is to win Friday night, so you get to play on Saturday night.
"We're going to try to go on a big run."
Hope closed the season on a 10-game winning streak, including a 54-50 win at Trine on Saturday to clinch the MIAA championship. It was Trine that snapped Hope's 61-game winning streak, 70-62, on Jan. 26. That winning streak was tied for third-longest in Division III history.
Hope had advanced to the Sweet 16 of the 2020 NCAA Tournament, before the tournament was scrapped because of COVID-19.
Then, in early February 2021, Hope learned the NCAA Tournament would be canceled again, along with the rest of the Division III winter championships. Morehouse found out moments after a top-five win over Trine, then had to break the news to his players.
That was a tough conversation, for sure. Thirteen months later, the pain has subsided, and the ultimate goal, finally, is attainable. Not that Hope feels it's owed anything.
"We're not playing to avenge the last two years," Morehouse said. "We're playing for this year's team, which is a special group of kids. We'll run this thing as long as we possibly can, with no regrets.
"If we win them all, we're going to be excited. If we don't, it's been an amazing season."
Hope has 10 players on the roster who were part of each of the last two teams that were denied a shot at the NCAA championship, and has 10 players who each averaged at least five points a game this season. Leading the way are senior guard Kenedy Schoonveld (10.2, 2.2 assists), senior center Olivia Voskuil (9.8, 6.1 rebounds, 2.7 steals), junior forward Savannah Feenstra (9.2, 5.2 rebounds) and Muller (8.5, 2.3 assists), a senior guard.
Hope has won two national championships, in 2006, in Morehouse's 10th season, and 1990. It's the only Michigan school to make the 2022 NCAA Tournament.
On the men's side, Calvin (20-8) plays Saint Johns of Minnesota (23-4) and Hope (22-6) plays Wheaton of Illinois (20-6) in opening-round games on the road Friday.