Before the tipoff of their 2017-18 seasons, Juniata’s men’s and women’s basketball teams were picked fifth in the Landmark Conference pre-season poll. The women’s squad had suffered through three consecutive difficult seasons. The men’s team had lost key contributors from the previous season who had helped the team to reach two Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) postseason appearances the prior two seasons. Despite the odds stacked against them, each team had high aspirations.
"We had more freshman than upperclassmen so I felt as though we would be too inexperienced," says men's basketball player Damon Rickens '18, a forward from Altoona, Pennsylvania. "However, I still thought we had the chance to be special."
Damon wasn’t alone in seeing the potential in his teammates—the women also thought they could surpass expectation. “I was nervous for my performance because of coming off an injury, but I was very excited for this team because I knew we had a great group,” says women’s basketball standout Bethany Spencer ’18, a guard from York, Pennsylvania. “I wanted to finish on a high note with my fellow seniors because we had three challenging years prior.”
And finish on a high note they did— Spencer and her teammates started with the longest winning streak in program history, rose to #17 in national rankings, and earned an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. The men’s team competed in the Landmark Conference Championship game and earned their first-ever national ranking (coming in at #23) via D3hoops. com. By the end of the year, and because of the ownership each player had in their collective efforts, each team would have one of the best seasons in their program’s history. Combined, they earned a record 27 victories in the “friendly” confines of Memorial Gymnasium.
“Our coaches had high expectations for us and we had high expectations for each other,” says Rachael Anstine ’18, a forward from York, Pennsylvania. “So, we pushed each other harder during fall workouts and tried to build solid relationships with each other heading into the season.” That relationship building paid off—not only for Anstine and the women’s team, but for the men’s team as well. Many junior and senior players forged a closeness from early adversity, including the jarring moment when one of their own, Shaquille Smith, became critically ill in 2015 and recovered in the midst of a tough season.
“We felt like solutions to our issues were difficult to find. Coach made us realize that it was up to us what we wanted with our season.” Damon Rickens ’18, Altoona, PA
Will Peralta ’18 remembers the “Shaq the House Night” as the win that meant the most to him prior to this season. “For Shaq the House night, we crowded the gym for my friend Shaq. He was in the hospital and we won.” The game marked the first time Smith returned to campus since becoming ill.
In fall 2017, both teams opened their seasons with unprecedented winning streaks. The men’s team was victorious in their first 12 games, including wins in the Doc Greene Tournament against a tough Randolph-Macon team and a blowout win over University of Scranton, who was selected to finish first in the Conference, according to the preseason poll.
“Our team and coaches regrouped and talked about ‘why we play’ and discussed our investment in the team.” Bethany Spencer ’18, York, PA
“The win over Randolph-Macon and the win over University of Scranton showed we could be a good team,” says Greg Curley, head men’s basketball coach and athletic director at Juniata. “We had a bunch of big wins already but those two wins helped validate that we were going to be tough to beat.”
“But the team hit a wall in January as they dropped three of four games. Suddenly, their hopes of reaching the playoffs were in jeopardy.”
“We pushed each other harder during fall workouts and tried to build solid relationships with each other heading into the season.” Rachael Anstine ’18, York, PA
“We felt like solutions to our issues were difficult to find,” said Rickens. But, when the players didn’t see it in themselves, their coach stepped in. “Coach made us realize that it was up to us what we wanted with our season.”
A six-game winning streak righted the ship, including a win at University of Scranton to sweep the season series for the first time.
At the same time, the women had begun an even longer winning streak than their counterparts, opening the year with a program-best 14 victories. They defeated then #8-nationally ranked University of Scranton, which helped them return to the D3hoops.com national poll for the first time since 2014 and rise as high as #17. Heading into the new year with a perfect record, the team earned some tough wins before they, too, hit a wall.
“Without past Juniata teams providing stepping stones for our success, we wouldn’t have achieved that ranking.” Damon Rickens ’18, Altoona, PA
“Losing to Elizabethtown, then Scranton, and then to Moravian, all on the road, was rough,” says Spencer. “It didn’t make sense how we could be so good but then lose so badly as well.”
Like the men’s team, the women found a solution that was very much in keeping with Juniata’s values—they took ownership of their season.
“Our team and coaches regrouped and talked about ‘why we play’ and discussed our investment in the team,” Spencer says. Coach Danny Young-Uhrich ’00 put together a scouting report on her own team to show them what they had accomplished so far and what they needed to do to finish the season strong.
Conversations about why students invest their time in athletics may sound small, but like many opportunities at Juniata—from leading student organizations or excelling in tough courses—the partnership between and amongst students and coaches made a difference.
A Senior Day to Remember
On senior day, with support from their coaches and families, both teams lifted themselves up. Each earned wins that resulted in home playoff berths. In the first-ever playoff doubleheader in Memorial Gymnasium, the men hosted Catholic, and the women hosted Elizabethtown. Both teams advanced, with men hosting Moravian for the Conference Championship game and women traveling to Scranton to compete for the title.
Both teams endured tough defeats in their conference championships, the men losing by three points and the women’s team falling in overtime. But, their efforts had earned the opportunity to continue playing in the postseason.
“All of the adversity that we faced in the previous three seasons fueled us to be successful our senior year.” Haley Myers ’18, Huntingdon, PA
The men’s team made their eighth trip to the ECAC tournament and were the number one overall seed. They hosted the first-round game against Arcadia University and held on late to earn the victory. They then faced a talented Neumann University team, who won the game and advanced to the ECAC final. The men finished their bestever year with a record of 23 wins and six losses.
The women earned an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament, their fourth appearance in the national tournament. A tenacious first half of defense saw Juniata only allow their opponent 16 points as they locked down Piedmont and went on to win 63-52. Haley Myers ’18, a guard from Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, spoke about what the team was thinking heading into their first NCAA game. “We knew it was now or never. If you lose, you go home and the season is over, and none of us wanted the season to be over just yet.”
In the second round they hosted #4 Thomas Moore who wound up advancing to the Final Four. Juniata finished one of the best years in program history with a final record of 23-6.
What Made the Difference?
Anyone who has cracked the cover of Sports Illustrated can tell you that championship culture plays an immense role in winning. At Juniata, the community built by the men’s and women’s basketball teams (and their coaches) also played a critical role in this season’s success.
“All of the adversity that we faced in the previous three seasons fueled us to be successful our senior year,” says Myers. “We knew we wanted to go out differently and leave a lasting, positive impression for the program.”
Myers and her teammates partnered with each other for historic success. And each understood that that partnership, which is so endemic to the culture of Juniata, is part of a legacy which will outlive their time at the College.
“We always credit the players and coaches that came before us,” Rickens says. “There were multiple opportunities for past teams to be ranked and it never happened for them. Without past Juniata teams providing stepping stones for our success, we wouldn’t have achieved that ranking. This season was full of great moments for the entire basketball program, past, and present.”