Writing A New Story

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Writing A New Story

Four weeks after the season ended the ride the Defender women’s basketball team took Defender Nation on still seems a bit surreal.  

Standing 7-6 nearly halfway through the season, the Defenders looked like anything but national champion contenders. Over the next three months the Defenders regrouped, stayed the course, and put together a run that very nearly ended in storybook fashion.   

The start, looking back, doesn’t seem as unbelievable when you examine the circumstances surrounding the first eight weeks of competition. 

A split on the road to start the year with a win over Presentation and loss to Grand View paved the way to a four-game winning streak that included a win over national powerhouse Marian (Indiana).  The start of conference play saw a split as well with a loss on the road to Morningside and a win at home over the Concordia Bulldogs. 

“I knew we had good talented players.  We had to learn to not be individualistic.  We had freshmen in key roles, and we had to learn that every possession matters,” said Dordt coach Bill Harmsen.  

From November 23-December 11 the Defenders struggled to find their identity and who they were with three losses in a row at one point to Briar Cliff, the College of Saint Mary and Midland.  Two of those losses came to teams that would actually miss the GPAC postseason tournament.   

“We knew we were a good team.  Looking around we had all the pieces to be very good. It took us a bit to get into the rhythm of things,” said senior Mya Chmielewski. 

The Defenders stopped the string with a convincing 13-point victory over Northwestern but the success was short lived with Dakota Wesleyan handing Dordt an 80-75 loss in Sioux Center on December 11.  At that point the Defenders stood at an unexpected 7-6. 

“We were in a rough patch at that point,” said senior Ashtyn Veerbeek. “Coach Harmsen got us together and laid it out that we could get on a roll.” 

With final exams in the rearview mirror the Defenders left for California and a pair of wins over non-conference foes a Westcliff and La Sierra.  Both games were close until the Defenders pulled away in the second half. 

“We spent time together on that trip, we competed, we had fun, we had team devotions and we bonded as a team,” said Harmsen. “Coming back, I thought the GPAC schedule was laid out that we could continue our momentum.  

The Defenders proceeded to win another five games in a row upon their return to the Midwest, all by double digits and one of them was a victory over Briar Cliff, who had tripped the Defenders before Christmas.  

“Right before Christmas we had to decide if we were going to turn the page and write a new story or even a new book or if we were going to just let the ups and downs keep happening.   Things started to come together, and we got into the winning streak,” said senior Riley Van Hulzen. 

With confidence building Dordt went to Omaha and needed overtime to survive the College of Saint Mary and then turned away Midland on January 22 in Sioux Center.  The hot streak continued with a win over Dakota Wesleyan that wasn’t secured until a shot at the buzzer came up short and the Defenders trounced Hastings in late January, limiting the Broncos to 34 points.  

“We tried to win each week and then we began to point at games as big games and then we won some of those,” said Chmielewski.  

Eventual wins over Concordia and Morningside helped build the winning streak to 15 with the win over Concordia marking the first time since the formation of the GPAC that the Defenders had swept the season series. The streak eventually ended on February 16 and the Defenders bounced back with a road win over Jamestown to end the regular season on February 19.  The win over the Jimmies was another overtime decision.   

“We started to do some things that no other women’s basketball team at Dordt had been able to do up to that point—that was pretty cool,” said Veerbeek. 

After a runner-up finish in the GPAC regular season chase the Defenders entered the postseason tournament as the number two seed in the eight team field.  

“You look at some of those early games that we lost, and it begins to sink in how close we were to being a regular season champion.  That will be motivation moving forward into next season,” said Harmsen. 

Dordt’s season extended into the GPAC semifinals where the eventual postseason champion, Dakota Wesleyan held on for a 69-59 win, but Dordt’s resume was solid enough to send them into the field of 64 and the National Championship bracket, the third time in four seasons Dordt had qualified for the national postseason field.  

“We got a good seed and it made us feel like we belonged and were meant to be there,” said Chmielewski.  

Games in Park City, Kansas awaited, with Dordt handling IU East 88-52 in the opening round and then facing KCAC champion Sterling in the second round.  A slow start led to an outstanding game with neither team getting much of a lead.  Dordt got a Macey Nielson three-point shot to take the lead and held on as Sterling had two chances to win the game, the last as the horn sounded.  

“It was incredible to be a part of that game.  One shot determines the rest of your career.  I just wanted us to win it so badly, so we’d have one more game.  When the shot missed my first thought was, we get at least one more week together,” said Van Hulzen. 

“Crazy things happened on the that last play,” said Veerbeek.  “There were multiple players on the floor.  That defensive stand came because of practice.  It all starts in practice, and we had to dig deep on that possession and what we practiced translated into a game.” 

Campbellsville (Kentucky) put up little resistance as the Defenders won their first game in Sioux City and advanced to the quarterfinals.  Facing a tall and talented The Master’s team, Dordt got a late run that included a pair of three-point baskets by Nielson and Mya Chmielewski and ended with Dordt going on a 18-2 run to finish the game for a 72-56 win.  

“At the national tournament I thought our team chemistry showed through,” said Veerbeek.  “We worked hard for each other and played for the girl next to each of us.” 

Awaiting the Defenders was Southeastern (Florida), a team that spent most of the season in the top-five of the national poll.  The Defenders managed to take a 52-43 lead but had to hang on as the Fire tied it.  Bailey Beckman got a chance at a runout and was fouled with less than five seconds left and proceeded to make one of two free throws to vault the Defenders into the NAIA Finals. 

“That game is my favorite game,” said Van Hulzen.  “The crowd was so engaged all those days and games and it built up to that moment.”   

Dordt’s advancement to the championship was the first time a GPAC member had qualified for the basketball title game in the single division format. 

“In early December we probably don’t win that game, but we hardened ourselves over the rest of the season. For Bailey to make that free throw late after missing two less than a minute before took toughness and an ability to deal with pressure,” said Harmsen. 

With a huge Dordt contingent on hand the Defenders were unable to keep the momentum against a Thomas More (Kentucky) team that had finished as the runner-up in 2021.  The Defenders trailed early, got some momentum late in the game, the crowd got into it, but the deficit was too large to overcome in falling 77-65. 

“What I’ll remember about that game is President Hoekstra and Barb along with Ross Douma taking the time to address our team before the contest and call them by name.  Then to get out on the court and see that sea of white and having someone in our community step up and help pay to get our students in the game is humbling,” said Harmsen. 

And then it’s over. 

Now what? 

That’s the question for coaches and players. 

“I’m forcing myself to reflect on the season we had and as the players trickled in over the following weeks, we’re in enjoying those memories,” said Harmsen.   

There is no next game.   

“Basketball has been a huge part of my life for the last 15 years,” said Veerbeek. “The way the season went and the way it ended makes me feel at peace with my decision to graduate, get married and move on.” 

There is no practice. 

“There’s this void and empty time.  You get so used to getting back to campus or done with class and head to practice.  I don’t have that now,” said Chmielewski. 

For seniors there is a finality beyond simply the season. 

“In my four years at Dordt I’ve come to understand that basketball is a part of my life, but not all of my life.  I was happy after my injury to just be able to stay and be a part of it,” said Van Hulzen.  

Veerbeek leaves after enjoying one of the best seasons in women’s basketball history, scoring 680 points, grabbing 366 rebounds and 115 blocked shots.  Those are all new season records.  

“I had great teammates around me, and we got to play more games in a season than any Dordt women’s basketball team in history,” said Veerbeek.  

Chmielewski played her final games as a Defender and didn’t miss a contest in 128 outings. 

“I’m so glad I came here.  I said to my mom after my visit that this is where I want to be. I’ve loved it here.  This team loved each other. We loved to be around each other and treated each other like sisters,” said Chmielewski. 

Van Hulzen didn’t end her career the way she wanted, suffering an injury in December that required season ending knee surgery. 

“I had great friends on the team and we had such a good time with each other,” said Van Hulzen.  

And what about next year?  Is it the goal to win a national title?  What drives the coach and coaching staff? 

“I look back at the year and I see all the work our assistants put in. I remember the hours in the weight room.  I remember all the prep that goes into it.  I’m so proud of how we battled through the season, and a loss in the final game does not define us—our purpose is far greater.  Our value is that Christ is in each of us, and we are meant to glorify him in all things.  The beauty of being involved in athletics at Dordt is that faith and athletics are intertwined, and our purpose is greater than wins and losses,” said Harmsen.