Western Illinois University Women's Basketball Coach J.D. Gravina is elated. Many coaches go a whole career without making it to the NCAA tournament. He's made it in just his sixth year at Western, which is his first Division I head coaching job.
“I told my wife I can die a happy man," Gravina said. “But there is still a lot more to accomplish here at Western, so I’m excited about this season and the future.”
The Leathernecks won their last eleven games to post a record of 26-6. That included a dramatic overtime win in the Summit League Tournament championship game. They will play Florida State University on Friday in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. It’s Western's first trip to the big dance in 22 years.
Gravina said what makes this year’s squad special is character.
“I’ve been saying since before the season started that this team has the best personality and attitude of any team I’ve ever coached,” Gravina said. “And I didn’t know if it would translate to wins and losses, and as the year went on I kept realizing more and more how important that was. And when we went to make this kind of run, and really started believing in each other, that was the thing that got us over the hump."
There are stars on the team. Junior guards Emily Clemens and Morgan Blumer have earned multiple awards from the conference and led the team in points per game. But when Western needed a three point shot with time expiring to force overtime in the conference title game, Coach Gravina drew up a play for a bench player, Taylor Hanneman.
“The chemistry, the atmosphere, the girls, and how much we actually care about one another really does make this team different and unique," said Hanneman, a junior from Glasford, IL.
That commitment to team is apparent to the fans as well. Devin Biggs is a WIU Senior from Lincoln, IL. He plays in the pep band and has followed the team closely for four years.
“They have been fun to watch. They are a very special team this year. They care about what they play for. They trust each other. They don’t hesitate to pass the ball to one another. It’s like if they are in trouble, they will pass the ball to another player,” Biggs said.
Things haven’t been great at Western in recent years. An ongoing budget stalemate between state lawmakers and the governor has led to dramatic cuts in funding, staff reductions, and a drop in enrollment. But Coach Gravina says this team shows what Western is really about, even when times are tough.
“It gives our campus community something to rally around. Our president, Jack Thomas, missed the Summit Conference Championship game because he was in Springfield lobbying," Gravina said. “It’s been a tough couple years, financially, and friends and co-workers leaving. But I’ve had people tell me this team is uplifting, something to rally around and take pride in.”
You can download a copy of the NCAA Women's Tournament Bracket here.