A historic season
The recent success of the women’s basketball team solidifies the role of women’s sports at Elon.
By Tommy Hamzik ’17
Charlotte smith was in an arts and crafts store when a pair of scissors caught her eye. The golden scissors, as she calls them, reminded her of her time as a player and a coach under Sylvia Hatchell at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And in that moment, the scissors were the perfect symbol of the Elon University women’s basketball team’s own vision.
Smith, the head coach, purchased the scissors, which have a special meaning in the sport. Teams use them every year to cut down the nets after winning a championship, or advancing to the game’s grandest stage, the NCAA Tournament. That’s where she wanted to take Elon. The Phoenix hadn’t been there, and in 18 years as a Division I program had never won a conference title nor been to the NCAA Tournament. She wanted her players to be thinking about that, to be thirsting for that in each minute of practice and every second during games. So Smith went the extra mile, creating a shadow box that included the golden scissors and a photo of this year’s team. She placed it inside the film room, where she’d nitpick the details of each game with her players, where everyone could see.
Consider the message received. Aligning with Smith’s vision, fulfilling the goals set at the start of the season and making history for the program, the athletics department and the university alike, the team used those scissors this year—twice. The Phoenix routed the University of North Carolina at Wilmington on March 1 in Alumni Gym to claim the outright Colonial Athletic Association regular-season title, the first for the program in the Division I era and first overall in 35 years. The players and coaches proceeded to cut down the nets in their home gym. Then the icing on the cake: Elon won three games in three days at the CAA Tournament in Harrisonburg, Virginia, ending in a 78–60 triumph over three-time reigning champion James Madison University to clinch the program’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament.
The success was a culmination of Smith’s vision for the program since she arrived from Chapel Hill six years ago and, in particular, the work of this experienced, driven team that bought into all of what Smith said, right down to her philosophy of focusing on defense and rebounding. On a grander scale, the team’s success was also the result of the great lengths pioneers of the sport went through decades ago to bring women’s athletics to Elon. “There’s a saying, ‘Without a vision, the people perish,’” Smith says. “You have to have a vision. You have to have goals. You have to constantly remind yourself of those. It was really cool to see it all come to fruition.”
Janie P. Brown, professor emerita of physical education, understands that all too well. She was the director of intramurals when she first arrived at Elon in the 1960s, when there weren’t very many women on the faculty and no opportunities for women’s athletics at the varsity level. She remembers Elon and other schools in the area hosting “Sport Days” and “Play Days,” where they’d either divide all the women up into different teams and compete in sports like volleyball, basketball or tennis, or compete interscholastically.
Elon was invited one year to one of the first invitational volleyball tournaments, hosted at Appalachian State University. Brown coached the group, and after countless practices, they felt they were pretty good. The team didn’t win a single game. It was then that President J. Earl Danieley ’46 hired Kay Yow as a coach, and that Elon’s first women’s basketball and volleyball teams were created. At the time, Elon was a part of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), which offered no women’s athletics. So women across the country formed the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW), which Elon joined. Elon’s first official game was in January 1972, a two-point loss to Wake Forest University.
The early teams faced their share of struggles. They didn’t have uniforms, but, according to Brown, one of the players had a sewing machine in her room, so they sewed numbers on the back of T-shirts for uniforms. The track team loaned them their warm-up shirts. The team drove their own cars to games, and packed their own bagged lunches. One year, when the team desperately needed leather basketballs, Yow told her players to ask for leather basketballs for Christmas. They did, and all returned to Elon with a new collection of basketballs. “When I think about how far we have come since that time, it’s amazing,” Brown says. “I’m grateful that I’ve gotten to see that process.”
Women’s athletics, both nationally and at Elon, have grown exponentially in the years since. Yow led Elon to a 20–1 overall record in the 1973–74 season, winning the women’s state tournament and advancing to the regional playoffs. In June 1974, she led a group of American women’s players in an exhibition against the national women’s team from the U.S.S.R. in Alumni Gym. The volleyball team went 31–8 in 1974, advancing to the final of the Southern Regionals. The university added women’s slow-pitch softball to the athletic program in the spring of 1977, with the inaugural team going 12–5 and the 1979 group winning the AIAW state title. Women’s tennis became an official sport at Elon in 1979, and women’s soccer was added in 1986. Elon moved to fast-pitch softball in 1990, and fielded a women’s cross country team for the first time in 1993. Today Elon’s women’s teams have won three of the four CAA team championships the school has claimed since joining the league in 2014. The women’s lacrosse team is in the midst of its fourth season on campus and seeing great levels of success, too. “I’ve seen great progress in our women’s programs, culminating in championships,” says Dave Blank, director of Elon athletics.
Brown received the Daniels-Danieley Award in 1995, and the Elon Medallion in 2006 while also endowing the Dr. Janie P. Brown Women’s Athletic Scholarship. She serves on the board of directors of the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame and is a staple at athletic events on campus to this day. Each year, before the season, she invites the women’s basketball team to her home for dinner. She gets teary-eyed thinking about the success this year’s team had. She says the teams that helped create women’s athletics at Elon dreamt big, but never could have imagined this day. “We were just happy to have teams, a conference to play in, uniforms to play in and to be recognized on campus,” she says. “To think that we have been able to succeed in all of these sports ever since then, it’s very exciting for me to see that. It makes me smile.”
Laying the foundation
Elon’s journey to the NCAA Tournament began on the other side of the globe. As part of Elon’s commitment to diversity and global engagement, the team traveled to Italy for 10 days in August to study and play against Italian club teams. Joyce Davis, a professor of exercise science, led the class “Globalization of Contemporary Sport,” and the team traveled to eight cities and played three games. This gave the Phoenix a jump on getting its four first-year players acclimated to its offensive and defensive systems, while also allowing ample time for the group to jell together well before the actual season began. “It was a really strong bonding experience for our team,” says senior Lauren Brown. “It really did set the stage for a lot of the success we were able to have this season.”
Elon was impressive in the early going, playing Wake Forest, UNC and Duke tight while beating Rutgers and Hall of Fame coach C. Vivian Stringer at home in November. The Phoenix played a competitive schedule with those teams and a season opener against perennial mid-major power Green Bay. When CAA play began, the Phoenix was regularly appearing in national mid-major polls and rising up in the Ratings Percentage Index, one of the tools used by the NCAA Selection Committee to evaluate teams. Elon was excelling particularly both on defense and on the boards, Smith’s two areas of emphasis. Since she arrived at Elon, she’s been preaching that defense and rebounding are the two keys to the game that a team can control. This group bought in, and the results showed.
Elon reeled off a program-record nine-game winning streak after the loss to Duke as it began CAA play. During that stretch, the Phoenix beat Drexel twice—the first victory coming when Drexel was atop the ESPN Mid-Major Poll, and the latter coming against a packed house at Alumni Gym in a game that solidified Elon’s spot as a contender for the CAA title. During the season, Smith harped on her players to look like a championship team. Not only should they be constantly improving their play and striving to win a title, but they need to prepare for the national stage they sought to be on. “That was something we preached all year, preparing yourself for where you want to go,” Smith says.
Elon won the CAA title at home, sending its seniors off from Alumni Gym in ideal fashion, but had one last hurdle to clear—one it had never conquered before.
Claiming a title
Since Elon joined the CAA, James Madison has been the crown jewel of the league. It has had multiple CAA Players of the Year, and had won the league title and advanced to the NCAA Tournament each of the past three years. And before the teams’ match-up in the CAA Championship, Elon had never beaten the Dukes.
That was well-known among the players and coaches. Smith laminated a picture of last year’s James Madison team holding the CAA Championship trophy and placed it in each player’s locker, a constant reminder of excellence and achieving excellence in all you do. She placed the same photo with the caption, “Who’s working harder: You or them?” on the locker room door, and instructed the team not to take it down until they had beaten James Madison. “It was definitely a good reminder,” Lauren Brown says. “We were surely working hard.”
Because the CAA moved its championship back to pre-determined campus sites, Elon, despite being the No. 1 seed, was playing a road game against No. 2 James Madison in the CAA Championship game. That didn’t matter. Elon fittingly produced its best defensive performance of the season, building up a 22-point lead en route to a commanding 78–60 win, solidifying its first trip to the NCAA Tournament and a spot in Elon history. They broke out the golden scissors, cut down the nets and launched into a celebration that included dozens of hugs, a dogpile of the team and Smith making confetti angels on the court. “It’s one of those situations where you’re kind of pinching yourself,” Smith says. “Even though you know you could be a championship team, when it finally hits home, ‘We really did this. We’re really champions,’ I was literally pinching myself. It’s so surreal.”
Elon returned home to be greeted by the band, cheerleaders and fans. The next night, hundreds gathered in Alumni Gym to watch the Selection Show, when it was announced on ESPN Elon was a No. 11 seed and set to play No. 6 West Virginia in the first round in College Park, Maryland. And, of course, there was a team ceremony to rip down the picture of James Madison from the locker room door. “This was the first time I’ve been a part of a team in my career where people really did buy in,” Brown says. “It was a different level of focus this year.”
Though Elon lost that game to West Virginia 75–62 after trailing by just one in the fourth quarter, the impact of the team’s success is wide-ranging. For one, the support the team drummed up during the course of its season was unprecedented. Three home games were attended by more than 1,000 people, including the 1,412 that watched Elon’s loss to James Madison and set an Alumni Gym record for a women’s basketball game. Blank says the team’s success will rub off on other sports.
“At Elon, it’s an advancement of all athletics,” he says. “Our teams adopt each other. If you come to one of our athletic events, you’re probably going to see other athletes there watching a team play.”
For her part, the successful season led Smith to be named the 2016–17 CAA women’s basketball Coach of the Year and the Eastern College Athletic Conference Coach of the Year, becoming the first Elon head coach to earn the honor. The impact for the university cannot be understated, either. Blank acknowledges Elon is building itself into a national university with national recognition, and the exposure that comes with a championship in athletics can help with that. All week leading up to the NCAA game, Elon’s logo and name were on ESPN. In addition, Inside Higher Ed, the leading media company serving the higher education space, named the team a Final Four All-Academic team for its academic prowess. “The marketing value, I don’t know how you put a price tag on it,” he says. “It’s very valuable in the eyes of the institution.”
Lauren Brown still looks back at the season in awe of what the Phoenix was able to accomplish. She had no idea where Elon was when Smith first invited her to a camp, but now the school is certainly on the map. She was also amazed at the level of support the team received all year. “I see my teammates now, and it’s like a nonstop celebration,” she says. Next year, Elon will hoist a banner in Alumni Gym celebrating this team and its accomplishments. Every day Smith walks in, whether for practice or a game, she’ll see a tangible sign of her vision fulfilled. “Our hearts will be full,” she says. “It’ll be a very gratifying feeling to see them hang those banners in our presence.”