By: Sean McChesney, Sports Director
On Saturday, March 5 the Montclair State Red Hawks suffered a season ending defeat against Albright College in the 2016 NCAA women’s basketball Division III Round of 32. Now that the season has come to an end, it can be said that Coach Karin Harvey and the Red Hawks had a season that could only be told in a Hollywood script.
The Red Hawks went into the beginning of the season without their two top players Melissa Tobie and Janitza Aquino, who graduated in May 2015. The Red Hawks started out hot, fresh off their NCAA Division III Final Four appearance as they went 8-1 going into winter break. Senior Guard Kayla Ceballos was the team’s leading scorer, sophomore’s Katie Sire and Kate Tobie were playing well to start off their second season, and junior guard Rachael Krauss was taking over the three- point scoring role left by Aquino the year before.
The fall semester came to an end and the team was riding high and gearing up for their trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico to play in the Puerto Rico Clasico Tournament during winter break. It was on that trip that Montclair State suffered it’s biggest loss all season.
On December 28, Ceballos suffered a torn ACL and MCL and would be out for the rest of the season. Just like that, Montclair State was without there leading scorer and there only senior on the floor. Winter break did not get any easier for the Red Hawks. They lost 4 out of their next 6 including a 68-64 loss to Rowan University on January 6 at the Panzer Athletic Center.
The Red Hawks returned from winter break on January 20 and suffered a conference loss to Kean University by a final score of 73-63. The Red Hawks fell to a record of 11-6 on the season. This was the first time Montclair State had six regular season losses since the 2011-2012 season.
The Red Hawks found themselves in fourth place in the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) standings with eight regular season games left. Two of those games were against the two top teams in the NJAC at the time, Rowan University and Stockton University, who defeated the Red Hawks during winter break. The Red Hawks had to put their foot in the right direction and they did just that on January 27 by defeating Rutgers-Newark 62-50, which sparked a miraculous eight game win streak. This win streak included a buzzer beater win on the road against Rowan University 71-70 on Febuary 10 and a 59-53 win over Stockton University at home on February 17 to end the season in a tie with Rowan for first place in the NJAC. The tie amounted to a coin flip which was won by Montclair State. In one month, the Red Hawks went from question marks on whether they would make the playoffs to the no. 1 seed in the NJAC playoffs.
The playoffs began on February 23 at the Panzer Athletic Center as the Red Hawks faced off against the William Paterson Pioneers in the NJAC semi final. The game started out slow with the Red Hawks down 11-0 in the opening minutes of the game. As the Red Hawks did all season long, they battled back from adversity and found a way to come back and win. They knocked off the Pioneers 71-62 to earn a bid into the NJAC championship game against Rowan University.
On February 26, the Panzer Athletic Center was packed with Red Hawk and Prof fans to witness one of the greatest NJAC women’s basketball championship games of all time. WMSC basketball play-by-play announcer Craig Gorbunoff and WMSC color commentator Brian Goudsward called the awaited matchup, “The War at Panzer.” The Red Hawks started out this game hot as they went into halftime up by nine. Rowan would soon turn the tables outscoring the Red Hawks in the third quarter 21-13. The Red Hawks only had a one point lead going into the fourth quarter. The fourth quarter was a war from start to finish as Rowan and Montclair State traded baskets back and fourth. With just 29 seconds left on the clock, Krauss drilled a game winning three- pointer and the Red Hawks never looked back. Montclair State went on to win their fourth straight NJAC Championship with a 68-62 victory over the Profs.
Following the NJAC championship victory, Montclair State earned an automatic bid into the NCAA Division III women’s basketball tournament for the fourth year in a row. The Red Hawks were fortunate enough to earn home court advantage for the first and second rounds of the tournament. In their first round matchup on March 4, they faced off against the SUNY Polytechnic Wildcats, which unlike the Red Hawks, the Wildcats have never been in the NCAA tournament.
The Red Hawks offense was quiet throughout the entire night, SUNY played with great defense, made key shots, and forced fouls frequently. Montclair State needed somebody to come up big or the season would be in jeopardy. Junior guard Zoe Curtis stepped up with a career high 18 point game which helped knock off the Wildcats 55-48 and helped the Red Hawks advance to the round of 32 the following night against the Albright College Lions.
The Red Hawks luck ran out in the round of 32. They were defeated by the Lions 69-66 in overtime. The offense remained quiet once again as the Red Hawks went 24-61 from the field. The Lions took advantage of their success with free throws and forced fouls on Montclair State all night long and they could not recover.
If there are any positives going into the 2016-2017 season for the Montclair State Red Hawks one of the big ones should be the fact that they are not loosing one single player off their active roster. Sire stepped up big after Ceballos’s injury and became the team’s top scorer, Krauss proved she can be relied on to make clutch three-pointers, and they will have senior leadership behind Krauss, Curtis, and Sage Bennett next season.
One of the big mysteries of next season which should be solved before the summer is the status of Kayla Ceballos. Ceballos applied for a red shirt following her injury, if she is granted the red shirt, she will be eligible for one more season with Montclair State.
In a year where the Red Hawks had to battle adversity, injuries, tough losses, and finally the doubt of the team being successful, the Red Hawks proved every doubter wrong. They did so by fighting back to make the playoffs, winning the NJAC championship game, and pushing the best team’s in the country to the limit in the NCAA tournament. As Gorbunoff mentioned following the loss to Albright College on WMSC, “Lets put every Division III women’s basketball team on notice now, this entire team will be back next year.”