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Playing With Heart
A fan looks back at the Pioneers’ historic season
March 17, 2023: The Smith basketball team is deep into its fifth NCAA Division III national tournament, heading into a Final Four game for the first time in program history. The top 64 Division III teams in the country qualify for this tournament, and in 2023 the No. 4 nationally ranked Pioneers are the only women’s college team among them.
So far, the season’s stats are impressive: a 30–1 overall record, a 24-game winning streak, and a third straight conference championship. Head coach Lynn Hersey has been named the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association’s NCAA Division III National Coach of the Year. Senior forward Morgan Morrison has been named the association’s NCAA Division III Player of the Year. Morrison and forward Katelyn Pickunka each scored their 1,000th point. (The list of individual and team honors is long.)
March 18, 2023 Final Four update: As in other areas of life, the events on a basketball court don’t always work out the way we’d like. Smith’s historic season came to a disappointing end in the NCAA Division III semifinals. The No. 4 Pioneers fell to No. 2 Transylvania, 76–65. Despite the loss, the team’s fans cheered them on until the very end, chanting “We want Smith” long after the final buzzer—as if to say thank you for a great season.
Playing With Heart
As a local, basketball-loving alumna who watched almost every game while eating popcorn in the bleachers, I was extremely inspired by the Pioneers and their remarkable season. I played basketball briefly at Smith in the ’80s. To be spending so much time in Ainsworth Gym again was surreal. Game after game, I watched this team’s sense of urgency, how hard they worked, their exceptional basketball skills, how they supported one another, and how they never gave up. Fiercely competitive, confident, intelligent, fit, athletic… and, they were playing with heart.
Whether it was Ally Yamada ’24 hitting a game-winning three pointer at the overtime buzzer, a relentless Jessie Ruffner ’24 or Amelia Clairmont ’24 driving to the hoop, graduate student Katelyn Pickunka rebounding in heavy traffic, Morgan Morrison ’23 scoring from the low post, or graduate student Dashelle Gleissner taking the ball down the court (before the opposing defense even noticed she had gone by them), they showed the crowd—and their opponents—how it’s done.
‘Fueled by Competition’
For the past 16 years Head Coach Lynn Hersey has been steadily building Smith’s winning basketball program, through hard work, dedication, and focused recruiting. “Our players are bold, not afraid to take risks, and are adaptable,” says Hersey. “We are a very deep team. There are players in our program who would easily be starting games elsewhere, but they came to Smith to win a national championship. We value what every player brings to the team, whether they are starters or coming off the bench.”
From my popcorn-covered seat, I admired the team’s fast-paced offense, phenomenal ball movement, and unselfish style of play. The Pioneers’ defense was just as relentless. It was hard to tell which end of the court these players loved more.
Smith players had an energy and fitness level that often exasperated the opposition. Even their strongest opponents were noticeably fatigued by the fourth quarter. Why? Because the Pioneers take their training seriously. In addition to their 2- to 2 1/2-hour daily practices, Smith players meet with a strength and conditioning coach twice weekly during the season and three times weekly in the off-season. According to Hersey, her players buy into the team’s game plan, trust each other to perform at a high level, and thrive in this competitive environment. “We are fueled by competition,” Hersey says. “Pressure is a privilege for us. We want to be in that moment, to be battle-tested. These are experiences that players can draw upon after they leave Smith.”
A Commitment to Athletics—and Academics
In the 2020–21 pandemic year, Smith’s academic program went fully remote and intercollegiate athletics were suspended. To avoid losing this entire year of basketball eligibility, eight Smith players made major life changes in order to pursue their dreams of winning a national championship. Six of these eight players chose to defer their Smith studies for one year, then resumed their Smith careers a year later when they could again combine basketball with academics. Two more starting players embarked on a year of graduate study this season in order to play their fourth year of basketball. Coach Hersey refers to this type of pivoting and adapting as “perseverance through strategy,” her favorite way of thinking about all life choices.
Coach Hersey and her staff pay attention not only to their players’ physical and mental health, but also their academics. Coaches check in weekly with players regarding their studies, in particular first-year students. Players often study together, providing support and friendship. This approach paid off. In addition to their successes on the court, team members averaged a 3.75 GPA in the season’s fall semester.
“They are striving for greatness in every facet of their experience here, whether that’s a chemistry grade, or being part of a club, or winning a national championship on the basketball court. We all understand what the big goal is,” Hersey says, adding that her players embrace the culture of leadership at Smith. “We are leaders outside of the sport of basketball. We are leaders in the classroom and in our own communities,” says biological sciences major Ally Yamada ’24, who has been playing basketball since she was 4 years old. Yamada notes that playing basketball helps her academically because juggling two demanding schedules has taught her to manage her time very carefully.
Sociology major Amelia Clairmont started playing basketball when she was 5 years old. “I’ve always had school and basketball together so that routine is crucial for me,” says Clairmont. Beyond academics and basketball, Clairmont knows personal growth is part of the puzzle, too. “I’ve grown a lot off the court as well,” she says. “This is also about who we are as individuals.”
The Power of the Fans
In the opening minutes of their first NCAA tournament game this season, on March 3, Smith lit up the court with a barrage of three-point shots, hitting a school record of 20 three-pointers, six by Clairmont alone. With less than a minute to go in the game, first-year forward Ella Sylvester sank a free throw for Smith’s 100th point in that 100–50 win. The fan response was deafening, and I spilled my popcorn, yet again.
Ainsworth gym seats 700 people. Throughout the season, it was filled with exuberant fans—students, community members, staff, local alums, and players’ parents. With every basket, every steal, every fast-break, every blocked shot, Smith fans were on their feet cheering loudly. Watching their reactions, particularly in the student section, was as inspiring to me as what was happening on the court. There was connection, optimism, and energy throughout the stands. Guard Ally Yamada was quick to credit the fans for powering the team through every game. “The fans have been super supportive,” she says. “I feel their presence and their energy. That motivates us to give back to them what they’re giving to us.”
Student-athletes from other Smith teams were often the most enthusiastic cheerleaders. When asked how they felt about the Pioneers’ success, they spoke of leadership, excellence, and empowerment, through wins or losses. As fellow athletes, they celebrated hard work, leadership, and perseverance, as well as the elevation of Smith and its entire athletic program.
After the games I watched Smith players celebrate on the court, and interact with the little girls who were lined up seeking autographs. These young girls witnessed more than a historic basketball game; they watched unapologetically competitive women dedicate their time and energy to a sport they love. That alone is another type of victory.
For a complete list of the team’s accomplishments, their full roster, and details about the coaching staff, click here.