The Swarthmore women’s basketball team continued to surprise this week, rolling over Marywood, Washington and Jefferson and Moravian en route to the program’s first ever ECAC Championship. With the victories, Swarthmore concluded its season with a 23-7 record, an astounding 14 win improvement from 2011-12. The team’s 67-62 championship game victory Sunday over top-seeded tournament host Moravian College ensured that the season, as well as seniors Madeline Ross and Eliza Polli’s careers, would conclude with a victory.
The ending was fitting for a unit Ross described as “a team of champions”, and it showcased the resiliency and commitment that has characterized the underdog Garnet squad all season. After sustaining a heartbreaking loss to Gettysburg College in the Centennial Conference championship game, Swarthmore narrowly missed earning an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, resulting in a bid in the ECAC South tournament. While the close loss and NCAA snub would likely have demoralized most teams, Swarthmore once again demonstrated its ability to bounce back, fighting its way to a championship.
In the final game, the Garnet were led, fittingly, by Ross, who has been the team’s emotional leader all season. Ross tallied 22 points in her final collegiate game, ensuring that her and Polli (3 points, 3 rebounds) would exit in style. Polli described the meaning of ending the season with a championship, pointing out that, “Not many people get to say the went to two championships in one season, and to win it all at the end is unbelievably special. I am so blessed to be able to leave Swarthmore with the best of memories because of this amazing season.”
Forward Katie Lytle ’14, who backed up winning Centennial Conference Most Outstanding Player by winning the ECAC MVP despite playing through a sprained ankle, spoke about the instrumental contributions Polli and Ross made to the team’s success: “They set the bar high starting in preseason. They both have such incredible work ethics and will settle for nothing less than their best effort. I think the rest of the team really followed their example and worked hard to meet the standards they set”. Point guard Kayla Moritzky ‘14 emphasized the role both seniors had in fostering a positive environment on and off the court, saying, “the most impactful thing that [Madeline] and Eliza did for our team this year was that they cared about each player as more than a teammate; they viewed each and every one of us as their closest friends. This mentality provided us with the backbone for great team chemistry”.
Head Coach Renee DeVarney, echoed Lytle and Moritzky’s feelings. DeVarney said that, “this season’s success was a result of every team member being on the same page, having the same goals and level of commitment. We had great leadership from our captains—[Madeline], Eliza and Katie—all of whom were hardworking, compassionate, and kept us on task when needed”. She called Ross and Polli the epitome of “the ‘hard working Swarthmore student-athlete’”, adding that the pair “will be sorely missed next year”.
The pair leave impressive legacies on the court as well. Ross averaged 11.7 points four rebounds and two assists per game in her senior season. Her ability to drive and create shots for herself and her teammates at the end of the shot clock helped Swarthmore earn crucial baskets throughout the season, and especially in the championship game. Polli had the best shooting season in program history, sinking an incredible 71 shots from beyond the arc, averaging 7.9 points per game. Polli made her final home game, Wednesday’s first round contest against Marywood, one to remember, sinking five three pointers and tallying a team-leading 17 points, helping Swarthmore win 67-61.
Polli’s three-point record was one of several single season milestones that Garnet players set this season. Lytle scored 452 points in her MVP season, good for 11th in program history and putting her in position to break the prestigious 1000 point mark early next season. Lytle’s 18 rebounds in the finals gave her a school-record 365 for the season. The junior sensation put herself into the College’s record book in almost every statistical category, tallying 109 free throws (7th), 74 steals (10th) and 32 blocks (9th). Other notable individual marks included 96 free throws (10th) and 42 blocks (6th) by Second Team All-Centennial Conference forward Elle Larson ’15, 88 assists (8th) by Moritzky and 32 three pointers (10th) by Jessica Jowdy ’16.
DeVarney reflected on the contributions of her “very versatile lineup”, saying that, “When teams focused on our ‘big two’ (Katie and Elle), others often stepped up. We could not have gotten by without the scrappy toughness and floor leadership of Kayla, or the key skills of [Madeline] and Eli, or the key moments in games when Jessica Jowdy and Abbey Deckard ’16 hit some big shots. Everyone stepped up at key times and it was very fun to watch.”
While these individual records were undoubtedly impressive, players chose instead to focus on the team’s accomplishments. Ross and Polli both described themselves as “lucky” to conclude their careers with a championship, and to have led such a cohesive team. “I have never been more proud of a group of girls for working so hard”, Polli said, adding that, “I couldn’t have asked for a better senior season in terms of wins but also in terms of the girls on my team. I will never forget the incredible high’s and low’s of the season that we have experienced together”. Ross added that, “When I stop and think about everything we went through this season, and then think about how it all ended for me, I can’t do anything but smile”.
Although Swarthmore will miss both the on and off the court presence of Ross and Polli, the returning Garnet players hope to build on the legacy that the pair helped to create this season. In this sense, the impact of the two seniors will continue to help the team even in their absence. Lytle pointed this out, saying that, “because of their leadership this year, [Madeline] and Eli have helped to create a program that expects to be successful”. Next season, Swarthmore will, in Moritzky’s words, “come out with the mentality of proving to everyone in the conference that this was not a fluke year and we as a program are creating a legacy for greatness”. With Lytle, Larson and Moritzky returning, Swarthmore appears poised to continue to make history next season.