In theory, the season should have been a struggle for the Franklin College women’s basketball team.
In reality, it’s been anything but.
Despite staggering graduation losses, attrition and the addition of a rookie head coach, the Grizzlies are poised for a successful defense of the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference championship. Consider:
At 21-4, they have the best overall record in the six-team field.
If you go
What: HCAC Women’s Basketball Tournament
6 p.m.: Manchester (10-15) vs. Defiance (14-11)
8 p.m.: Rose-Hulman (12-13) vs. Hanover (18-7)
3 p.m.: Transylvania (20-5) vs. Game 1 winner
5 p.m.: Franklin (21-4) vs. Game 2 winner
2 p.m.: Semifinal winners
At 15-3 in the HCAC, they are seeded No. 2.
They have won seven straight games and 15 of the past 16.
They beat every HCAC rival at least once during the regular-season, including No. 1 seed tournament-host Transylvania.
And they did it all while coping with injuries and attrition that also presented season-long challenges.
Surprised? So is coach Jennifer Lodge.
Even she marvels at the Grizzlies’ accomplishments heading into the tournament, which begins Friday.
“They’ve definitely surprised me, in a good way,” said Lodge, a first-time head coach whose team
is bidding for a third straight HCAC Tournament championship and accompanying NCAA Division III postseason bid. “Coming into this job, I always had high expectations for them.”
In nearly every way, the Grizzlies have exceeded them.
On the strength of suffocating defense and the execution of the purist form of “team” basketball, the Grizzlies have overcome the travails of graduation, attrition and adjusting to a new coach to enter the HCAC Tournament as its hottest team — an unlikely distinction in light of circumstances.
For the past three years, Franklin was powered — under the direction of veteran coach Kim Eiler — by three-time HCAC Player of the Year Sarah Condra. The Grizzlies won a school-record 25 games last season and advanced to their second straight NCAA Division National Tournament. Eiler, who had guided them to four national tournament appearances in her eight seasons, resigned at the end of the year.
Enter Lodge and a new paradigm.
If the Grizzlies were going enjoy anything close to the success of recent seasons, they would have to do it collectively. And they would have to put their trust in a 28-year-old first-time coach.
And that’s what they’ve done.
Ultimately buying into Lodge’s system, which stresses defense and offensive balance, the Grizzlies immediately resumed winning.
Although a handful of players did quit earlier in the season, the 11 who remained have evolved into a rock-solid force. The leading scorer is senior guard Lindsay Rich (12.2 points per game), but the wealth is spread almost evenly throughout the rotation.
Senior center Jess Prewett, the top returner from last season, and sophomore center Lindsey Dall each average 9.8 points per game. Junior forward Krista Scott averages 8.5 points, and sophomore forward Nicole Thompson — a backup forward from Greenwood — averages 8.1 points.
Senior point guard Annie Tarkington averages 5.4 points and has shown the ability to score prolifically when the Grizzlies need it.
“We don’t have one star. If one person doesn’t show up, another person steps up,” Lodge said. “Kind of that team chemistry, where we’re able to play together, also just perseverance. There have been games where we have been down, and we’ve come back. (It’s) just perseverance. I think when you’re down and you come back and you win, it makes your team a lot stronger.
“With the adversity that we’ve had to go through this year, it’s kind of brought us a lot closer as a team. I think that helps us on and off the court, as well.”
Lodge is confident the the team approach will pay dividends in the conference tournament. The Grizzlies have a first-round bye and will play in Saturday’s semifinals against the winner of Friday’s first-round matchup between No. 6 Rose-Hulman (12-13) and No. 3 Hanover (18-7).
Tournament-host Transylvania (20-5, 16-2 HCAC) is the No. 1 seed and will play a Saturday semifinal against the other first-round winner between No. 5 Manchester (10-15) and No. 4 Defiance (14-11). The championship game is at 2 p.m. Sunday.
Lodge likes the Grizzlies’ chances of making Sunday date. They haven’t lost Jan. 23, when they stumbled 59-53 against visiting Transylvania.
“I think we’re playing very well, and I think we’re getting better every game. We’re improving,” Lodge said. “No one (in the conference) swept us this year. That’s a positive for us. We know we can go and beat the people that we’re that we’re playing. It’s just (a matter of) actually doing it.
“I think we have high hopes. It’s tournament-time, so I think every team is going to take their game to the next level.”