In February of 2013, Stephanie Miller and her Goshen College Maple Leafs Women’s Basketball team had just lost a road game to Huntington University (Ind.) — their 14th loss in a 15-game stretch. The game was a near foregone conclusion from the beginning and culminated in an 84-47-blowout loss.
Miller remembers that game painstakingly well.
“We fell apart at the end and there was all kinds of drama and blame flying around, player to player, coach to coach,” Miller said. “I went in my office and remember shutting the door and thinking, ‘man, this had been such a project and this isn’t going anywhere.’”
Miller, now a 47-year old former Division 1 softball player from Grosseile, Michigan, has been through the ringer during her time at Goshen. Her first year, the 2011-12 season, started without a recruiting class because of her August hiring, and resulted in 3-27 overall and winless conference record. Her next season, the 2012-13 campaign, her first real season at the helm of her own program, wasn’t much better.
“We brought in some pieces and hoped they could play…but we didn’t have the senior leadership that allowed them to grow,” Miller said.
That year, too, resulted in a 3-27 overall record and just one conference victory. But Miller saw potential in that recruiting class, which now features three of the Maple Leafs most important pieces – Tyra Carver, Liz Tecca and Jo’mani Thomas. The following season, Miller added Lynnia Noel, a skilled guard from South Side High School in Fort Wayne, Ind. After Noel and the rest of the 2013 class arrived, Miller saw a change in her team.
“It was [Carver’s] sophomore year, Lynnia’s freshman year, where we had the talent and the pieces were coming together on the court. Our problem, we had talented freshman and sophomores, but were sending out freshman and sophomores to play against other teams juniors and seniors,” Miller recalls. “That group was really resilient and didn’t give up. They stuck together and that was the difference.”
Despite the culture shift and talent increase, the Maple Leafs won just four games, bringing their total to 10 wins in three years. That track record would’ve been enough for most teams and players to question themselves. But when things got difficult – and they got difficult a lot during those first two years for Carver and Noel – they thought back to why they came to Goshen College in the first place.
Both Carver and Noel were sold on three basic premises: playing time and the ability to build something, the education Goshen College offers and the family-like atmosphere within the Maple Leafs team dynamic.
“The family aspect shows when we play because that’s really how we feel,” Noel said.
Miller’s fourth year at the helm, after amassing just a 10-80 record the previous three seasons; all the hard work and dedication started paying dividends for the self-described “gritty” girls from Goshen.
The Maple Leafs went 18-13 during the 2014-15 season and went 9-9 in conference play. But even then, Goshen’s opponents felt their winning ways were merely a fluke.
“When we used to win last year people said, ‘Oh, it’s a fluke. Goshen is not supposed to be here and that wasn’t supposed to happen,’” Noel said.
Now, that’s the last thing teams are saying about Goshen. The Maple Leafs, fresh off an 85-82 buzzer-beater that sent 2015 national runner-up Concordia University (Neb.) packing, a 84-66 drumming of No. 1 Saint Xavier and the first ever national tournament victory for Goshen College across all sports, the country and host-city, Sioux City, IA, are taking notice.
“It feels good to knock off a top-seed team, especially the path we’ve taken to get here and after losing to them in December,” Tyra Carver said. “It’s kind of unreal. It hasn’t sunk in yet.”
“It definitely validated our spot here,” Noel gleamed. “We’ve done so many things in a short amount of time that we never thought we could accomplish.”
Goshen’s ascendance feels very Cinderella-esque. But don’t tell them they’re arriving to the dance in a pumpkin.
“We’re not the cleanest team in the tournament and we’re rougher around the edges,” Miller stated emphatically. “We don’t care about that. We’re not driving a convertible Mustang, we’re driving a Ford truck and I’m OK with that.”
In a five-year span, the Goshen College Women’s Basketball team went from a Crossroads League doormat to the feel-good story of the 2016 NAIA Women’s National Basketball Championship tournament.
They epitomize the phrase “started from the bottom” and that, simultaneously, makes them perhaps the most humble and hungry team left in the tournament field.
“Starting from the bottom like this has made us humble and made us appreciate everyday…because we’ve been on the other end of these situations,” Noel said.
That perspective shows in their physical, passionate style of play.
“We’re tough, battle-tested and for me, toughness trumps pretty. We’re gritty,” Miller exclaimed. “The kids have attitude from where they’ve been…for me, getting here is a testament for perseverance and what that can do for you. It’s an inspirational story.”
Goshen will take on No. 3 seed Dakota Wesleyan on Saturday at 1 p.m. with a semifinal birth on the line, but regardless of how that game and the rest of the Maple Leafs’ season goes, they’ve made history and left a lasting legacy for years to come.
“I love that feeling of taking the program to places it hasn’t been and knowing that I’ve been apart of that,” Noel said. “It just makes this experience that much better. That we did it.”