History Making

History Making-A Look At Dordt Basketball's Back To Back Historic Seasons

By: Danny Mooers, Dordt Assistant Sports Information Director

In sports, a year can be the difference between disaster and success. Countless times throughout history, teams have struggled one year only to find themselves at the top the next. The Virginia Cavaliers men’s basketball team ended its 2017-2018 season being the only team in NCAA history to lose to a 16-seed as a one seed. They returned to the tournament in 2019 and won the title. These stories are more common than one might think. The coaches and athletes on these miraculous teams often attribute the turnaround to one thing: a change in culture.

The Dordt University women’s basketball team is a recent recipient of one of these turnarounds. The women had just finished the 2016-2017 season with a 13-17 record overall and 5-15 GPAC record. The team was given the news that current head coach Katie DeWitt was stepping down as head coach. Kyle Lindbergh was set to take over as Interim Head Coach for future head coach Bill Harmsen while he finished his tenure at Western Christian.

The women finished the 2017-2018 season with a 14-17 record, but improved to 8-12 in the GPAC.

“To come in and implement a program that the women weren’t used to was going to be a struggle,” Harmsen said. “But Kyle came in and did a great job with that and made my transition a lot easier.”

Harmsen was coming off of four state titles in six seasons at Western. Three were won with the girls and one with the boys program.

When he officially took over at the start of the 2018-2019 season, Harmsen had every single player back from the previous season. It was a young program with talent that had yet to be fully tapped.

“I knew we had some good kids when I took over,” Harmsen said. “It was a matter of making it work. I like to coach fast and play great defense. We didn’t have long to find the right balance, but we made it work.”

The women started the season with five straight blowout victories including one over conference opponent Mount Marty. The first challenges came in early November with games against Morningside and Dakota Wesleyan in a period of four days.

Morningside had finished fifth in the GPAC in the 2017-2018 season and Harmsen knew it would be a challenge.

“Morningside came here and made our lives tough,” Harmsen said. “They swarmed the ball and we weren’t ready for that.”

The Defenders fell 97-84 and had little time to prepare for an away contest at Dakota Wesleyan.

Dakota Wesleyan finished with a 16-4 record in their 2017-2018 campaign, capped it off with a GPAC Title and a trip to the National Tournament. The Tigers defeated Dordt 72-68 in a highly contested game.

“We had the proper perspective after those losses,” Harmsen said. “We realized that we weren’t ‘there’ yet. At Dakota Wesleyan, we played well, but couldn’t quite pull out the victory.”

Two victories in two games led up to the first match of the season with Northwestern. Despite a 43-point performance from sophomore Erika Feenstra, the women lost 91-84. The loss was tough to swallow, but it showed the rest of the GPAC that Dordt was the real deal.

The women rattled off seven wins in their next nine games. In those wins, was a victory over GPAC leader Concordia.

In early January, the team had another two-game stretch against Dakota Wesleyan and Morningside. The Tigers were too much to handle and beat Dordt 81-66. Four days later, Morningside beat Dordt again by a score of 91-83.

A 20 win season was reachable for the Defenders, but it wasn’t going to be easy. They were at 15 wins with nine games to go. It would be the first 20 win season in program history and it would come in Harmsen’s first year as head coach.

“At this point in the season, the girls knew that going out and playing hard every night was our only option,” Harmsen said. “We weren’t accepting anything less than that.”

Two wins over Mount Marty and College of Saint Mary following the losses against Dakota Wesleyan and Morningside were a solid response. The second matchup against Northwestern, however, went in favor of the Red Raiders.

The loss came in late January with a week to prepare for Concordia. With the home win over the Bulldogs earlier in the year, the women knew they had the tools to win. A back-and-forth game came down to a last second attempt to tie it at the buzzer, but Dordt couldn’t convert. The loss gave the Defenders their fourth loss in six games.

“The second time through the GPAC is much different than the first,” Harmsen said. “The coaching is so good and teams knew about us. They were giving us their best every night.”

Two victories in the next two games put Dordt at 19 wins with three games to play. An unexpected home loss at Midland made the team a bit uneasy. It was a reality check and realization that no game is easy in the GPAC. The Defenders responded well with a 50-point win over Briar Cliff to secure the record breaking season.

A loss in the final game of the regular season to Hastings set the Defenders up for the GPAC Tournament. They drew the Broncos once again, but couldn’t secure the home victory and lost 66-63. The women finished the regular season 20-12.

Despite the tough finish to the season, the women were expected to make the National Tournament for the first time ever.

“To sit in the room with all the players and coaches and wait for the Defender logo to come on the screen was special,” Harmsen said. “When we get our name called, it was a really fun moment for the team.”

Dordt drew a matchup with Indiana Northwest, a quality team who had a strong regular season. The four seed, five seed matchup is always a toss-up and neither team was a clear favorite.

Indiana Northwest took a 45-28 lead heading into halftime.

“We started the game and were standing around,” Harmsen said. “It had been two weeks since we’d played. The first half was tough, but coming out and playing in the second half the way we did was special.”

The Defenders went on a 26-11 run in the third quarter to cut their deficit to two. A 30-18 run by Indiana Northwest gave them the 86-72 victory and sent Dordt home.

“At the end of the season, our team was motivated,” Harmsen said. “We took the tournament in stride, but we knew we wanted to be back. In April, I was meeting with the current seniors and talking to them about what we wanted to be known for. We went through a book together and created our vision.”

Throughout the summer, Harmsen had the team back on campus three times to go through workouts and play open gym. In the fall, a retreat was taken to the Black Hills with the juniors and seniors. There, the women created goals that would encompass the Defender Way and build off what was already created.

Kenzie Bousema was the only senior to graduate, so the nucleus was back with even more experience and drive. Through recruiting, the team added a few more pieces and looked poised to make another tournament run.

At that time, the only setback was junior guard Sienna Stamness tearing her ACL. Harmsen knew she would be back by January to help the team build towards the playoffs.

However, in the fifth practice of the 2019-2020 season, senior point guard Annie Rhinesmith tore her ACL. It was a major setback for the team. Losing a leader as important as Rhinesmith was difficult for the team both on and off the court.

In the midst of the difficult news, the team responded and rattled off seven straight wins to begin the year. The team still had seniors Payton Harmsen, Rachel Evavold and Ebby Prewitt. Plus, Erika Feenstra was coming off her sophomore All-American campaign.

Similar to the previous season, Morningside was responsible for Dordt’s first loss of the 2019-2020 season. An 81-78 nailbiter in Sioux City ended in favor of the Mustangs.

“We battled with Morningside and had a shot towards the end of the game to win it, but it wasn’t in our cards that night,” Harmsen said. “But to see the respect the women had gained not only in the GPAC, but also in the nation was amazing.”

A bounce back win over Northwestern set the team back on track and led to a five game winning streak. An away contest at Hastings gave Dordt its second GPAC loss of the season. Rachel Evavold sat out of the game with a back injury and the Defenders struggled to hang around late losing 88-69.

Turnovers started finding their way into Dordt’s play and victories were tougher to manage. Concordia beat Dordt 69-55 and pressured Dordt into 29 turnovers. Dordt responded with wins over Mount Marty and College of Saint Mary. They concluded the first half of the run through the GPAC.

“The way we practiced as the year progressed last year made us tired,” Harmsen said. “I learned from that and didn’t want to make that mistake again. So we started taking lighter days and letting both our minds and bodies rest.”

The second half of the season started well with a 74-70 win over Dakota Wesleyan. But Morningside continued to give Dordt trouble and defeated the Defenders at home 90-65. Dordt’s 28 turnovers were the main culprit in the loss.

Three straight wins provided Dordt with momentum heading into their second matchup against Northwestern. The Defenders led 23-11 at the end of the first quarter, but high ball pressure to start the second put the momentum in favor of Northwestern. Dordt finished with 23 turnovers and a stinging loss. Defeats courtesy of Concordia and Briar Cliff gave the Defenders their first three game losing streak of the year.

At this point, the Defenders had already secured their second 20 win season in a row, but things were trending downward.

“You can’t get down in such a long season,” Harmsen says. “That’s one of the things I took from last year. After the three losses, we had some good practices, team meetings and the team came back with a lot of fire against Hastings. We were down eight, got some stops, got the crowd behind us and pulled out the victory.”

Two GPAC wins to end the season gave Dordt a 24-8 overall record and 15-6 record in the GPAC. The first round of the GPAC tournament brought in Dakota Wesleyan. It was a 75-55 blowout in favor of Dordt thanks to some of the best defense the Defenders had played all year.

Concordia won their third game of the year against Dordt in the GPAC semi-finals to ruin Dordt’s chances at a GPAC title.

Dordt earned a three seed at the National Tournament and were ready to take on Reinhardt out of Georgia. The Thursday game was set to begin at 1:45 p.m. in Sioux City. At noon, the team was given word that the remainder of the National Tournament was cancelled due to the worries surrounding Covid-19. What was supposed to be the team’s second National Tournament appearance in two years was taken away.

“It was disappointing that it (National Tournament) was cancelled, but we have perspective and understanding about the health and safety of our athletes and fans,” Harmsen said. “It was hard to see our team digest the announcement. They were all in uniform and ready to take a picture. But to see the team come together again during the tough time was really powerful. They all have a proper perspective on life. I feel bad for our seniors and the rest of the team. I’m really proud of how the team progressed as the year went and on and we’ll be sure to remember this season.”