Warhawk women two wins from first national title
The first step when it came to making a return trip to the Final Four was not to let this season be all about making a return trip to the Final Four.
“The hardest part is to not look at it like that,” UW-Whitewater coach Keri Carollo said.
Her Warhawks made a magical run to the NCAA Division III national championship game in 2013. With a victory over Whitman at Stevens Point on Friday night, they'll be back in that same game just one year later.
But Carollo and her team simply couldn't let it be their focus back when the season began.
“After we lost last year, we had such a big group coming back,” Carollo said. “But it was really important for them to stay focused on one game at a time and us getting better as a completely different team than we were last year.”
The Warhawks lost six seniors but have eight of them on this year's roster. Not surprisingly, that means they're void of juniors, and Carollo worried a bit about the gap between the veterans and young players.
It didn't stop them from rattling off eight victories in their first nine games. Then came the first hurdle—a pair of losses in a Las Vegas tournament.
The back-to-back losses seemed to wake a sleeping giant. Whitewater added 6-foot-2 post player Kristen Ruchti at the semester break, and it won 14 straight games to end the season, going a perfect 16-0 in Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference play.
“We talk a lot about truly caring for each other off the floor,” Carollo said. “Once they realized that every part is important—whether you're playing a lot or a little bit—then you get them to buy in. And once you start winning, it all comes together.
“They're extremely selfless. They want to win, and they want to win together.”
Yet in the conference tournament, they suffered a stunning collapse against UW-Superior.
Senior guard Kaitlyn Thill said it was the jolt the team needed heading into the postseason.
“I think it was a good thing, just because we would've had so many wins in a row,” she said. “It was a good loss to have then, instead of actually having it in the tournament and our season being done.”
“It was our 'Aha!' moment,” Carollo added. “They realized this could really be it, and how do we want to finish our season?”
Since then, the Warhawks have won four NCAA tournament games by an average of 11 points. They topped DePauw—the team that beat them for the national championship a year ago—on its home floor in Greencastle, Ind., 88-71, on Saturday to earn a second straight Final Four trip.
Now Whitewater has unfinished business to attend to.
“We're not just satisfied with beating our rival from last year in the national tournament,” Thill said. “We want to go in and win a national championship because we lost in that game last year.”
It should help the Warhawks that they'll stay in their home state and play in familiar confines.
Whitman comes from Walla Walla, Wash. The other semifinal features Tufts (out of Boston) and Fairleigh Dickinson-Florham (in New Jersey).
All three schools will be making their first Final Four appearance, so tip the experience advantage toward Whitewater, as well.
“Last year, I think we were just happy to be there. I hate to say that,” Carollo said. “But this year, I think they're like, 'We're meant to be here. It's our time.'”