In 2014, the Jumbos made the Final Four of the NCAA Div. III National Championships for the first time. The Jumbos returned to the Final Four in 2015, bowing out to eventual champion Thomas More with a final score of 62-52. The Jumbos made history again in 2016 with their first appearance in the national championship game before ultimately losing to defending champion Thomas More.
The team’s steady ascent over the years, continuously improving and moving forward, reflects the underlying mentality of its players and coaching staff.
“For me, [coaching] is a work in progress, learning new things, new offensive things, putting in new defensive drills,” coach Carla Berube said. “I’m always looking to incorporate new things into our program, [and] we’re certainly not doing the same exact things that [we did] last year because our personnel are different.”
Tufts finished 28-4 overall and undefeated in the NESCAC in the 2015-2016 season, averaging 59.9 points, 39.8 rebounds and 14.8 assists per game. The Jumbos held their opponents to just 45.4 points on 32.5 percent shooting all season. As a result of two early season losses, the Jumbos’ record was 6-2 by the end of December. They went on a 17-0 run to start 2016 before Amherst snapped their streak with a 50-49 win in the NESCAC final on Feb. 28.
The team’s failure to defend its NESCAC title was quickly forgotten, as it embarked on a NCAA journey during which it went further than ever, all the way to the title match. There, however, it lost against defending champions Thomas More 63-51 on April 4.
Four of the team’s five starters from last year are returning this season: tri-captains senior forward Michela North, senior guard Josie Lee and junior point guard Lauren Dillon, as well as junior forward Melissa Baptista.
Lee, who was also a tri-captain last year, will help to lead the team along with North and Dillon, who set the tone of the season by leading captains’ practices up until official practices started on Nov. 1, as per NESCAC guidelines.
While Dillon is now stepping into her first official leadership role on the team, Berube said that the Dillon has been a team leader ever since she earned a starting position as point guard in one of her first few games in a Tufts jersey.
“Lauren [Dillon] – LD – [is] our court general. Everybody’s looking to her all the time, just keeping us steady and strong, and I think she’s done a great job so far,” Berube said. “Leadership is a work-in-progress, [and] Lauren’s kind of been a leader since she stepped on campus, so she’s perfect for this role.”
North, the most decorated athlete on the Tufts team, received D3hoops.com All-America second team honors, Women’s Basketball Coaches Association’s All-American honors, the D3hoops.com Northeast Region Player of the Year award and the NESCAC Co-Player of the Year award, among other honors this past year. Her contributions go far beyond leading the team in both points and rebounds, Berube said.
“I think [North] has stepped up,” she said. “She definitely leads by example on the court. She’s done a great job … being a more vocal leader, and I think she sets the right example as both a student and an athlete.”
North’s leadership has also impacted other players who are stepping into larger roles this season as upperclassmen. Baptista averaged 22.8 minutes in 30 starts last season, contributing 10 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game. She tied with North for the most blocks on the team.
“Michela [North]’s voice is strong and present, and she’ll very much give you advice when you’re doing something wrong, what to improve upon, when to cheer,” Baptista said. “She’s always a constant voice, especially with the forwards. She’s taught me a lot and she’s taught everyone underneath her a lot.”
The Jumbos have five first-years on their roster: guards Cailin Harrington, Sadie Otley, Alexis Hermes, Lilly Paro and guard/forward Erica DeCandido, who will look to make an immediate impact and energize the rotation.
“I’ve been trying to find ways to motivate the team, to have all the players want to play for the seniors in a way, knowing that it’s our last year in this jersey. I want them to really push themselves,” North said. “I want them to know that this is [the seniors’] last shot at the national championship and I don’t have another chance.”
Upperclassman efforts to further integrate newer players into the team has been a crucial development over the preseason, according to North.
“We have a lot of people who are experienced and kind of know the drill, so everyone was pretty much familiar with what we do in [the] preseason in terms of lifting, conditioning and pick-up,” North said. “I think we all did a good job of relaying that to the freshmen that you have to work so hard to get to that point [and] we didn’t just end up at the national championship.”
At the core of this motivation, North and Berube said, is a constant reminder of the team’s past shortcomings. Even as the program has recently reached new heights, the team strives to continue to improve.
“Every year I’ve been here it seems like we kind of have a chip on our shoulder [because] the team before has gone so far and last year was the closest we’d ever made it,” North said. “We’d made it to the Final Four in previous years, but the National Championship game is one step further and this year it feels that we need to redeem that [loss], more so than previous years.”
The team’s competitiveness stems in part from Berube’s approach. The image of Berube intently directing play from the sidelines, even while her team is winning by 20, epitomizes the mission of playing with something to prove.
“If you don’t play with a chip on your shoulder, you’re not going to just have that extra motivation,” Berube said. “We haven’t won anything, we haven’t won a national championship here, and I also think it’s taken us a while to get the respect that I think the program deserves. We’re certainly getting that now, but I think you always need to play to prove to yourselves, to prove to others watching.”
With the Jumbos ranked No. 1 in the D3hoops.com preseason poll on Oct. 26, Tufts does not have the option of flying under the radar this season. With that recognition comes the expectation that their opponents will bring their “A game” to Cousens Gym.
“It’s nice to get that respect, but a lot of the ranking is what we did last year and who we have coming back, [but] nobody has seen us yet. It’s just a preseason ranking, so we have something to prove, but most important to me is that we’re getting better and we’re getting prepared both mentally and physically to take on everybody’s A game,” Berube said. “It’s great for the program and for the alumni and for recruiting and all that, but we want to be number one in March not in November.”
Tufts begins its 2016-2017 season today against Keene State at 8 p.m. during the Skidmore Tournament in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.