March 18, 2011
Business as usual
By David Boyce
By David Boyce
When the bus carrying the victorious Northwest Missouri State women's basketball team arrived back in Maryville at 4 a.m. Tuesday, coach Gene Steinmeyer was thinking about one thing.
Steinmeyer hoped the thoughts of his players were in sync with his.
The Bearcats, 28-4, needed to focus on their next game even though it was a week away. Northwest will face Cal Poly Pomona, 28-4, at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday at the St. Joseph Civic Center in the NCAA Division II Elite Eight.
"I couldn't wait to get a hold of film, set-up our itinerary," Steinmeyer said. "My assistants are out recruiting. It's all business for the coaching staff."
It's a little bit harder for the players. When they returned to class Tuesday and Wednesday they were hearing congratulations all over the place. They deserve it.
By beating Central Oklahoma 82-70 in the South Central Regional Championship game, the 2010-11 Bearcats took the women's basketball program where no others have gone.
"It was awesome," junior guard Abby Henry said. "It was a goal of our team all year and to accomplish it was a really good feeling and we are excited, especially to get back and play in St. Joseph where all our fans and family can come and watch us."
A collective strong will is needed for a team making its first trip to the tournament that crowns the Division II national champion.
"There is that fear and that danger," Steinmeyer said. "It is kind of intoxicating to get all the attention and the pats on the back.
"The President (Dr. John Jasinski) has invited us over to his house for dinner on Sunday."
Dinner with the college president is not something most student-athletes get to experience.
"That's pretty neat," Henry said. "He's been to all of our games this year. He was in Oklahoma for our games. To go to his house and see how the president lives is pretty cool to say."
The Bearcats realize just about everything about this season has been special. They made it special by focusing on their next game and not getting caught up with all their success.
Despite a couple of long winning streaks and claiming the MIAA regular-season title, the Bearcats went into the MIAA Tournament hungry to prove they belonged at the top.
Northwest won the tournament crown and went to the regional as the No. 2 seed, with the same mentality.
Just because they are one of eight teams left playing doesn't mean they are invincible, junior forward Tara Roach said.
"We just have to realize that we have lost," she said. "We are beatable. We have struggled. We need to look back and not allow it to happen again because now it is one and done. We can't overlook anyone. We definitely can't overlook Cal-Poly Pomona and think they have the same record as us so of course we are going to win.
"I think everyone on the team realizes we are beatable. We got to take one game at a time. Going into practice we got to work hard like it is the first day. I have a pretty good feeling. I think the team realizes it. When people come up and congratulate us, we are saying ‘thanks', but we are not finished yet."
Steinmeyer, though, will not work the team like it is the first day of practice. He's done all he can do with the team's conditioning. There's no point in going over fundamental drills like it is October.
In fact, Steinmeyer gave his team two days off after they returned home from the regional. He plans to give them a total of three days off between tournaments.
"I'm using the same philosophy as I used before the MIAA and the regional and that's taking the idea that less is more," he said.
There are two ways to look at the week off between games.
"I think there are pluses and minuses," Roach said. "We were on a roll so it would have been nice to go straight to the Elite Eight.
"But I also like having a few days to get back and catch-up on schoolwork, take a break and get our bodies rested. We get a little more time to know our opponent and mentally prepare for the Elite Eight."
In reality, it would be pretty difficult for the players to get caught up in the hoopla and forget there is still another tournament to be played.
"Our coaches," Henry said, "do a really good job of keeping us level headed even though we have had a lot of success so far. We keep telling ourselves that we are not done yet. We are going to St. Joseph and taking it one game at a time and try to keep our season alive as long as we can."
The one thing about these Bearcats is they know they are having a remarkable run. They understand that basketball teams don't build these kinds of friendships every season.
Sometimes a team with diverse personalities mix well and sometimes they don't. Anybody who has played team sports for over a decade has encountered both.
When you are in the situation when it all comes together, you work hard to keep the season going as long as possible.
"I think that is something really special about our team," Henry said. "We do have so many different personalities. All of our stories on how we got to Northwest are unique. For us to come together this season and have it so successful, makes what we accomplished that much more fun."
Winning the regional will be a memory that will stick with the Bearcats for a lifetime.
"It was awesome," Roach said. "It's the best feeling I've ever had playing basketball. Knowing that you are the best, not only in conference, but you are the best in region. We worked really hard for this. We've been working hard since Labor Day. It's nice knowing all that hard work paid off."
The Bearcats are not greedy, but they want what the other seven teams in the Elite Eight are after. They want to be national champions, although neither Roach nor Henry voiced those words. They only talked about playing Cal-Poly Pomona.
Steinmeyer is doing everything possible to put his players in position to win it all.
"After dinner at the President's house, we will pile in a bus on Sunday and head for the Drury Inn," he said. "We could have chosen to stay on campus. But all the advice I got from people who have gone through this is to get them (the players) away from the compliments. Get them away from the fans and get them down to business."
And that's something the Bearcats have been doing all season.
David Boyce spent more than 20 years covering high school and small college athletics at the Kansas City Star newspaper in Missouri. He's covered six of Northwest Missouri State's seven national championship football games and recently served as a guest columnist for the MIAA.
Boyce was named KIAAA Sportswriter of the Year in 1994. He covered boxing at the Star from 1991-2004 including Tommy Morrison and worked both championship fights between Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis. His 1997 exclusive story on Morrison becoming HIV positive was named an Associated Press Sports Editor top 10 feature for papers serving more than 150,000.
Boyce was born in New York City and was raised in Kansas City, Kan. He graduated from the University of Kansas in 1988 with a degree in journalism. He is currently one of three official scorers for the Kansas City Royals and is a contributing writer for the Royals Gameday magazine.
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