What has become a dreamlike playoff run became a bit more real for Shenandoah University’s women’s basketball team on Monday afternoon.
The Hornets, who beat the odds and won the Old Dominion Athletic Conference tournament as the No. 8 seed over the weekend, heard their names announced as part of the NCAA Division III Tournament field for the first time in nearly 20 years.
SU’s inclusion wasn’t a surprise — winning the ODAC tournament on Sunday guaranteed the Hornets a spot in the 64-team field — but it was the latest in what has become a growing list of surreal moments for Shenandoah, which entered the conference tournament with a losing record but reeled off four straight wins to claim the title.
“I don’t even know what’s gonna help make this feel real in the sense of what we just accomplished in the last week, two weeks or so,” Hornets head coach Melissa Smeltzer-Kraft said by phone shortly after the NCAA Tournament pairings were announced. “But yeah, definitely today, sitting there and hearing our names called, that was pretty special, and we got to do it together with a lot of other people from the university. That is helping, for sure.”
Shenandoah’s NCAA Tournament appearance is the program’s third overall and the first since the Hornets won the Dixie Conference title in 2000. SU also won a Dixie Conference championship in 1996.
The Hornets (16-13), winners of six straight after Sunday’s 63-53 victory over Washington and Lee in the ODAC championship game at Salem Civic Center, will take on DeSales University (25-2) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday. The game will take place at DeSales, located in Center Valley, Pennsylvania, about eight miles southeast of Allentown.
The Bulldogs, ranked 15th in the last D3hoops.com poll released on Feb. 17, enter the tournament on a 20-game win streak and went unscathed in the MAC Freedom Conference en route to the league’s regular-season and tournament championships. DeSales has won 19 straight games at home, two shy of the program record.
“I’ve been following all season the top 25 and everything and DeSales has been a mainstay there all year,” said Smeltzer-Kraft, whose team is the only ODAC program selected to this year’s tournament. “I played against DeSales in college myself and Fred Richter is the coach there, he was there when I played. He’s an outstanding coach and he just runs a top-notch program. Besides that, I don’t know anything else in terms of the specifics of this season. But with that being said, anything can happen and I think we’ve proved that over the last week. Our kids are pumped. They love this underdog role right now, and if people wanna sleep on us, so be it. We’re gonna keep showing up.”
Shenandoah is allowing only 49.7 points per game during its six-game win streak and has guaranteed its first winning season since 2009-10.
The NCAA Tournament’s second round will take place on Saturday, with sectionals scheduled for March 8-9, the semifinals on March 15 and the finals on March 16 at the Cregger Center in Salem.
Friday’s Shenandoah-DeSales winner will meet the winner of John Carroll (22-6) and Middlebury (19-7) in Saturday’s second-round game.
“The way we’ve done everything every year from Oct. 15 on is built for the sustainable and the postseason, so I think we’re gonna keep sticking to what we’ve been doing,” Smeltzer-Kraft said of the approach in practice this week. “I think it’s about going light, getting shots up. Kids are tired right now. We were just on the road for four days and played three games. It’s about just listening to them and their bodies, and us trusting what we’ve done all year, for our upperclassmen to trust what we’ve done the whole time they’ve been here and so on and so forth. So yes, it is uncharted territory but our methods are calculated and we’re just gonna keep doing what we’re doing.”