BRIDGEWATER, Va. - Heading into the New Year, there were plenty of question marks surrounding the women’s basketball team here at Bridgewater.
The Eagles were an uncharacteristic 1-5 before a victory over an overmatched team from Puerto Rico sent the Eagles to the holiday break with a 2-5 record.
Maybe, this was going to a down season for the women’s team.
To quote ESPN resident football genius Lee Corso, “Not so fast, my friend!”
The Eagles have rebounded from that uncharacteristic start to win six straight games. Bridgewater is 7-5 overall and tied for first in the ODAC with a 5-1 conference record.
A large part of the Eagles early-season troubles can be attributed to a tough non-conference slate. Bridgewater lost games to Messiah, Catholic, Marymount and Gettysburg – four teams with a current combined record of 49-11. Messiah and Catholic are both 14-1 and ranked in the D3hoops.com Top 25.
“With Shenandoah coming into the ODAC and the conference going to an unbalanced schedule, we were forced to find more non-conference games,” Bridgewater head coach Jean Willi said. “We played some very good opponents and I really believe that’s helping us now.”
The Eagles played some good basketball against the two ranked teams on its schedule.
Bridgewater led at Catholic, 41-38, with 5:46 left in the game, but the Eagles failed to score the rest of the way as the Cardinals escaped with a 46-41 win. Against Messiah, the Eagles trailed by just four at the half, but the Falcons controlled play in the second half to pull away for a 57-37 victory.
Willi cites several reasons for the team’s current winning streak.
First is the play of senior standout Jessica Mullen. Mullen is back to playing like the Player of the Year candidate she was a year ago before a heart ailment sidelined her for the final seven games of the season.
During the current winning streak, Mullen is averaging 19 points per game and has raised her season average to 16.7 – third best in the conference. In the six ODAC games she is scoring at a 20.7 clip, the best mark in the ODAC.
“Certainly, Jess is really playing well right now,” Willi said.
Willi also noted she has tinkered with her lineups, depending on the opponent’s personnel.
“We’re basing our lineup more on matchups. Early in the year, we were playing Katie (Hottinger) and Shannan (Thorne) together with Katie at the four,” Willi explained. “Against some teams, that’s a really good lineup for us. On other nights, we’re better with one big on the court and Holly (Morgan) playing the four. Making adjustments to fit our strengths has helped us on both ends of the court.”
Another lift for the Eagles has been the play of their all-freshman backcourt. Jessi Strom and Cassidy Burkholder have adjusted quickly to the college game and have combined to give the team solid play.
Strom is averaging 4.9 points per game while Burkholder is scoring 6.5 points per game. More importantly, they are taking care of the basketball as both have more assists than turnovers.
“To date, those two haven’t played like freshmen,” said Willi. “They’ve been solid and they get a little better every game.”
The Eagles will try to keep the winning streak alive Wednesday evening when they travel to Shenandoah. A win over the Hornets in Winchester would set up a showdown for first place on Saturday when Guilford comes to Nininger Hall.
There were also question marks surrounding this year’s men’s squad.
The team was 7-4 heading into the New Year, but they were still looking for that signature-type victory.
The Eagles had three chances in 2012 for one of those wins, but each time the team came up short. They had a chance against Randolph when they led by 12 points with eight minutes left, but the WildCats rallied to snatch away the victory in the final minute. They had another chance against a very good Wesley squad, but lost in overtime. The team had a third opportunity against nationally-ranked Christopher Newport, but the Captains built a big early lead, weathered a strong Eagles rally and then pulled away down the stretch for a comfortable victory.
The Eagles have played well in four conference games since the break and are coming off an impressive road victory at Randolph-Macon, snapping the Yellow Jackets 30-game home winning streak.
That victory over Randolph-Macon – one of the most respected programs in the ODAC - may be the signature-type win that the young Eagles squad has been looking for.
Many will look at Randolph-Macon’s record (8-7 overall) and jump to the conclusion that this is not a typical Yellow Jackets team. A closer look reveals that these Yellow Jackets have played a brutal schedule.
The other six losses have come against teams that have been ranked in the Top 25 at some point this season. Four – Christopher Newport, St, Mary’s, Guilford, and Catholic – are ranked in this week’s Top 25. Two more – Randolph and Transylvania – received votes. The cumulative record of those six opponents is 76-13.
“People might look at the overall record and think this is a down year for Macon, but that’s still a pretty good basketball team that we beat and we beat them on their court,” Bridgewater head coach Don Burgess said. “It was a good win for our program and it was good win for this basketball team.”
Burgess and his staff are pleased with the progress of this year’s team. The process started over the summer when the team heeded the staff’s advice.
“Before the guys left for the summer we challenged them to do three things - get better, get stronger and get healthy,” Burgess said. “Guys got better. They got stronger. Guys who were hurt worked hard to rehab. One thing I can say about this group is the fact that they work hard.”
The results of the hard work are starting to show in the win-loss column. After winning just 15 games total in the past two seasons, this year’s junior class is on pace for the program’s first winning season since the 2008-09 team finished 15-12.
As the season has progressed, the team has adopted a motto of “grow up, tighten up.”
“When we talk about growing up, we’re talking about learning from our mistakes, players holding each other accountable,” Burgess explained “Tighten up refers to doing the little things like setting a better screen, making a sharper V-cut. That attention to detail will help you take the next step as a team.”
Evidence of a team growing up could be seen in the victory over Randolph-Macon.
The players remembered the loss to Randolph prior to the Christmas break. In that game, the WildCats grabbed the lead in the closing minute to take a victory away from the Eagles. When facing a similar scenario this past Saturday, the Eagles responded.
“That Randolph game still stings,” Burgess admitted. “But there is no doubt we learned from that game. When Macon took the lead, the guys came to the bench during a timeout and you could see they were not rattled. They knew what they needed to do. We executed and Kenneth Waugh hit a big shot to give us the lead and then the guys defended and got a stop.”
The Eagles will try to put win No. 10 in the books Wednesday when they host a struggling Shenandoah team. Game time is 7:00 p.m.
“As big as that win was over Randolph-Macon, the guys know that game is in the past,” Burgess said. “All our focus now is on the next game and that’s Shenandoah.”