The road to the NCAA Division III Women's Basketball Championship has traced a familiar path this season, through Washington University. In 11 of the last 13 years, the Bears have won the national title or have been knocked out of the tournament by the eventual national champion.
So, who better than a pair of locals to help guide the Bears this year? Senior Hannah Cusworth and junior Claire Schaeperkoetter have stepped up in the Bears' quest for a sixth national title and second in succession. The road has been especially treacherous this season for Wash. U., which has beaten two teams that had been undefeated, the No. 1 team, another that had a 75-game winning streak on its homecourt and one that had beaten the Bears (24-5) twice in the regular season.
"That's part of the magic of the postseason tournament," said Cusworth, a graduate of MICDS. "Everybody plays their heart out. You can see it in every team on the court."
The Bears' next opponent is no less formidable. Illinois Wesleyan (27-4) is hosting the Final Four in Bloomington, Ill., starting tonight. The winner will face Amherst (30-1) or Christopher Newport (29-3) for the title Saturday.
"I think it's almost easier to stay mentally focused when every opponent presents such a big challenge," said Schaeperkoetter, a graduate of Columbia Rock Bridge.
The duo has enjoyed moments in the sun during this year's tortuous run. Cusworth had worked her way into the starting lineup earlier but was forced to play bigger when the Bears' starting and backup post players were injured in the first weekend of the tournament. She helped neutralize the post players of top-ranked Thomas More on Friday and the University of Chicago on Saturday, putting the latter game out of reach for good by making a jumper with just under six minutes remaining.
"I think my adrenaline rush had a lot to do with it," Cusworth said. "I know because we have less players, I may have to put a little more effort and energy into our game."
Coach Nancy Fahey said Cusworth's emergence was gratifying because of the time that she spent honing her game on the JV squad, then making the most of her time off the bench.
"It's a story that coaches love to watch," Fahey said. "Now she's giving us impact minutes because of that journey. Her desire to do the little things makes a big difference."
Schaeperkoetter came off the bench and scored eight points in 59 seconds last week to turn top-ranked Thomas More's seven-point lead into a 26-25 advantage that the Bears didn't relinquish. Fahey said Schaeperkoetter's success is equal parts hard work and faith from the coach.
"Claire has been in the gym more than any other kid. She loves big games. She comes right in and isn't afraid to shoot the 3," Fahey said. "You put her in there, knowing that sometimes, she may take a shot that you wonder about. But if you wrap her too tight, you won't get what happened Friday night."
Both players considered moving farther from home to continue their education, but their decisions came down to the same bottom line. Both wanted to keep playing, and both welcomed an academic challenge. Cusworth will graduate in May with a degree in English literature; Schaeperkoetter is majoring in psychology and Spanish.
"It came down to where I felt most at home," Schaeperkoetter said. "We're Division III athletes. We know we're not doing this as professionals. So you have to pick a school where you could still be happy even without athletics."
But the decision to continue playing pays off at times like these, especially against a team like Illinois Wesleyan, which beat the Bears 73-68 in November. The teams meet annually in a tipoff tournament, so Washington U. is almost as familiar with the Titans' high-pressure, fast-break style as Big 12 opponents are with Missouri's fastest 40 minutes in basketball.
"We don't mind playing up-tempo, but you have to maintain composure," Fahey said. "Their style of play is very effective. If you had never seen it, it's really difficult to prepare for in two or three days."
Once again, the Bears face an opponent that will have the hometown crowd filling the stands. The Titans are the third postseason opponent for the Bears playing on their homecourt and their fifth top-10 team in as many games.
"You couldn't write this script better. But the challenge is something we're embracing," Fahey said. "Besides, who's not good at this point?"