Basketball | Amherst women’s basketball has sights set on second straight national title
Jeffs have won 46 straight and show no signs of slowing
Published: Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, February 29, 2012 07:02
The Amherst women's basketball team is in the midst of a remarkable run on par with some of the best ever seen in Div. III sports. In the past few years, the Lord Jeffs have not only established themselves as the perennial team to beat in the NESCAC but have also become the top Div. III team in the nation. In defeating Tufts on Sunday, defending national champion Amherst extended its winning streak to 46 games overall and 63 straight at home while clinching their third straight NESCAC championship and further cementing their position as the class of the conference.
Despite the team's dominance in recent years, the man behind the magic remains hungry as ever. Coach G.P. Gromacki, currently in his fifth season at the helm of the Amherst women's basketball program, wants to avoid feeling content. Instead, he chooses to focus on building from each victory, treating each game as a steppingstone towards — as he puts it — "something bigger."
"I tell the girls all the time that it's important to prepare for each opponent like it's a new day," Gromacki says. "You have to try and enjoy each moment and not think too far ahead or think about past games. Just stay focused and in the present moment."
In Gromacki's first five seasons at Amherst, his team hasn't missed a beat. Gromacki arrived at the start of the 2007−08 campaign. In his first year, the Western Massachusetts native surpassed all expectations, leading the Lord Jeffs to a 27−3 record, a first−ever NCAA Tournament appearance and a first−ever NESCAC title.
Right away, Gromacki had set the bar high, and he wasted no time raising that bar again in the 2008−09 season, when his team rattled off 18 straight wins en route to a 29−4 record. Amherst hosted the first four rounds of the NCAA Tournament and won those contests by an average of 24.8 points, including victories over nationally ranked NYU and Brandeis.
The next year, the Lord Jeffs won their first 31 games, climbed to No. 1 in the national rankings, reclaimed their NESCAC title and once again advanced to the NCAA Tournament semifinals.
And then, just when one might have thought that the Lord Jeffs had peaked, they put together their most memorable season to date in 2010−11, winning 32 of their 33 games and claiming the first Div. III National Championship in school history.
Gromacki has been named the D3hoops.com Northeast Coach of the Year in each of his first four seasons with the program. Additionally, he received NESCAC Coach of the Year honors in 2008, 2010 and 2011. Each season, despite the departure of graduating seniors and the challenge of developing new rosters, the Lord Jeffs have improved on their previous year's performance and have broken records that were thought to be unbreakable. In only a few years, Gromacki has taken an underperforming program accustomed to middle−of−the−pack finishes in the NESCAC and turned it into a national powerhouse.
"We've gotten fortunate in recent years to have some great players wear our uniform," Gromacki said. "Every year, regardless of roster changes, we've always had strong leadership from our seniors, and that helps us stay composed and confident in any situation."
This year, that leadership has come in large part from seniors Shannon Finucane and Lem Atanga McCormick, who have both played integral roles. Finucane leads all Amherst players in career steals (283) and is second all−time in career assists (404). McCormick has been a dominant down−low presence for the Jeffs in her four years, leading all players in career blocks (164). As a whole, this year's senior class has scored the most combined points of any senior class in program history (4,724).
"They all just love playing together," Gromacki said. "They have a great understanding of spacing and positioning on the floor related to one another. With any team, chemistry is either there or it's not. And we have it."
Amherst has also benefited from the play of senior Caroline Stedman, who was recently nominated for the Jostens Award, given to the most outstanding women's Div. III basketball players of the year. The nomination is well−deserved, as Stedman has flourished under Gromacki's guidance and gone from a freshman who averaged ten minutes a game to a standout on the division's best team.
Despite all the winning and high expectations, perhaps Gromacki's greatest asset is his ability to stay loose in times of immense pressure.
"He knows when to be serious and he knows when to joke around and have fun," sophomore guard Sally Marx said. "We all admire how he never takes himself too seriously and always puts things in perspective. That really helps calm us down, and we just go out there and play basketball."
This season, the Lord Jeffs are at it again, building on a winning streak that began on Jan. 14, 2011. It has been more than two years since the Jeffs have lost a game in front of their home fans.
And yet, Gromacki ultimately will only label the season a success if it ends in one way: "Hoisting up the trophy when it is all said and done."
The Lord Jeffs have put themselves in a good position to do just that. On Monday, they were selected as a regional host site for the NCAA Tournament, which will begin on Friday.
"We are aware of the streak, but it's really on the back burner when we're out on the court," Marx said. "Coach is a big reason for that. We just go out, have fun and play basketball. Obviously, it's been working."