This past weekend at Haverford College, the Muhlenberg women’s basketball team added another milestone to its already-stacked record books. With their 56-51 win over Dickinson College, followed by a 74-61 win over Gettysburg College a day later, the Mules are Centennial Conference Champions three years running and guaranteed an automatic bid to this year’s NCAA Division III Women’s Basketball Tournament.
The triumphant couple of victories in Haverford, Pa. gave the team its third consecutive championship. Head coach Ron Rohn, who has held that same position with the Mules since the 2001-02 season, is used to achieving success at Muhlenberg, but he is especially excited about the accomplishments of this year’s squad. “I am very happy for our team and players,” said Rohn. “It was a season where they battled and worked for everything they got. It seemed nothing came easy this year—injuries, illness, integrating nine new players into our program— but they stuck with it and were rewarded with a championship.”
Perhaps what most separated this year’s team from teams Rohn has previously coached at Muhlenberg is the bit of conference history that was made for the first time ever this year. Rohn understood what was at stake since the beginning of the season, and made sure to let his players know the significance of what they could accomplish together. “The motto on our practice shirts said ‘Make History’ because we knew that no team in the league had ever won three straight titles, and it was a goal for this team to do that,” said the most successful coach in Centennial Conference women’s basketball history. “I know they are very proud of having that honor.”
In a season that saw Muhlenberg women’s basketball compile an impressive 20-7 overall record and a 15-5 conference record—the latter placing at second best among Centennial Conference teams—there was much to be proud of. However, when asked about what the most memorable highlight from this season has been, the answer was quite obvious to Rohn. “Of course this weekend [was the most memorable], as it was the culmination of everything this season. When we were struggling in January, we stayed focused on getting better everyday, on being the best team at the end of February, and not worrying about who was the best team in the middle of January. To see a team not panic, keep working towards that goal, and believe in each other the whole way was extraordinary. And it really paid off this weekend.”
Rohn also showed appreciation for a number of other moments throughout the season that may have been overlooked. “Besides that [conference championship], the several come from behind wins in the second half of the season [were memorable] because they molded and hardened our team for the post sea- son. Seeing so many players step forward in big spots and produce, those who are not the obvious names—such as Eva Sodaitis ‘19, Ashley Polera ‘20, Amanda Morello ‘19, and Caroline Hogg ‘20— that was exciting. It made this a total team effort.”
Although the successful regular season has reached its conclusion, the most important contests of the season still remain. The NCAA Tournament will commence Friday Mar. 3, as the Mules take on Geneseo in the first round. Regardless, the team is thoroughly excited for another opportunity to play beyond the February schedule.
One team member who is particularly ready for this imminent postseason test is Maggie Zerbe ‘17, a soon-to-be-graduating senior; this year’s NCAA tournament will be the last time that she will have the privilege of representing the Mules on the basketball court. As team captain, Zerbe has constantly been one of the Mules’ most important players. She had much to say about this season, in addition to reminiscing on her overall career as a Muhlenberg student-athlete:
“The most memorable part of this season had to be standing by the bench after we won the championship, right before I received the trophy. At that moment, it truly hit me that we won and that we were the first in team history to win three in a row. Knowing the rich history the women’s basketball program has, it was a really incredible feeling to know we achieved something so great. Looking back on my past four years, I have to say that being a part of this team has really shaped my experience. I met some of my best friends and have had so many incredible opportunities as a result of playing basketball, and I wouldn’t change a thing. It was definitely a bit difficult to be the lone senior on a team of twenty girls, but throughout the season I have embraced the title. I am not the loudest girl on the team but I like to think I Iead more by example and hope that my work ethic has set a good example for my teammates. Going into the NCAAs, the team has a lot of energy. After winning the conference, the team is on a bit of a high and I hope that the excitement we have, especially being on the younger side, will carry through and spark us in the tournament. I’ve had a pretty incredible experience so far playing for Muhlenberg, so no matter how or when it ends, I will look back and know that the past four years have exceeded my expectations,” said Zerbe.
Sara Dilly ‘19, who averaged 7.4 points and 2.0 steals on the season, echoed similar sentiments to those of her head coach and of Zerbe. Specifically, she spoke on the success of this season, all while exhibiting immense exhilaration for the forthcoming tournament.
“The most memorable part of the season was cutting down the net at Haverford after winning our third straight Centennial Conference Championship,” said Dilly. “The morale of the team is very high, and we’re all focused on winning one game at a time by playing the best we can one possession at a time. Last year we got to host [the NCAA tournament game], which was cool. But we’re looking forward to traveling this year. This was a great season with some ups and downs but we peaked at the right moment, and when it counted, we really played well and deserved to win the conference.”
Both Dilly and Zerbe displayed an immense amount of confidence in the team’s ability to continue playing well during the national tournament. Such a high level of composure is vital for any team to have if they hope to play well against tougher competition. This poise is radiant on the team in part because of the advice preached by Coach Rohn. As head coach, it is imperative for him to encourage his players to maintain a winning mindset. Rohn’s biggest piece of advice to the team is simple: “To keep going about our business day to day and not get to caught up in the hoopla and sideshows. Approach practice and games like we have all year. At the same time, we want to enjoy the experience, as not everyone gets to do this.”
“This was a great season with some ups and downs but we peaked at the right moment, and when it counted, we really played well and deserved to win the conference.”
This year’s Muhlenberg women’s basketball team ranks among the most elite in school history. Coach Rohn and his players are clearly aware of the team’s success in the college basketball world, so much so that Rohn went as far to make a comparison to the University of Connecticut, a program that is by far and wide the most dominant in Division I women’s college hoops.
“Well, we haven’t won 100 games in a row or won any national championships yet, but we want to chase excellence in the same way that UConn does. On a national basis we are not at that level yet. But with eight Centennial Conference Championships in the past 12 seasons we have become the dominant team in our league, and we can compete with teams nationally. And I have always believed that you should dream big; that your reach should always exceed your grasp. So from that point of view we are never going to stop trying to achieve that kind of greatness.”
With a three-peat championship and placement in the NCAA Division III Tournament, it is safe to say that the team has made history, and will continue to do just that.
Photos courtesy of Muhlenberg Athletics