Roadrunners face North Central Missouri in opening round

Published 1:23 pm Wednesday, March 13, 2024

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DOWAGIAC — For the first time in 30 years, the Southwestern Michigan College women’s basketball team will be participating in the National Junior College Athletic Association Championships, which begin March 18 in Joplin, Missouri.

The Michigan Community College Athletic Association co-Western Conference, and Great Lakes District B champions found out their opening round opponent Monday afternoon as players, coaches, family and fans packed the Zollar Building theater to watch the announcement of the 20-team field.

A lot has changed since the Roadrunners won the 1994 National Championship. There are multiple divisions now and the field has expanded over the past few years to 20 teams for the 2023-24 version.

After announcing the top four overall seeds — Johnson County (31-0), CCBC Essex (25-6), Kirkwood (31-2) and Rock Valley (33-0), the pairings were announced, as well as, the four at-large bids.

Southwestern Michigan College (26-4) is the No. 16 seed and well face No. 17 seed North Central Missouri (24-6) at noon (local time) on Monday, with the winner advanced to face undefeated Johnson County, which is the No. 1 overall seed. That game will be played Tuesday.

The other teams in the Roadrunners’ half of the bracket are Pima (23-8), Coastal Alabama-North (19-11), Union (24-4), Lincoln Land (27-6), Iowa Western (31-2) and Parkland (26-5).

The Roadrunners’ journey is truly a Cinderella story.

Three years ago, began the process of bringing back women’s basketball after more than 25 years with the hiring of Coach Jeanine Wasielewski. She spent a year scouring the gymnasiums of Michigan, Northern Indiana and Illinois looking for the best talent she could sign.

That hard work paid off as Southwestern Michigan was 18-9 in its inaugural campaign and qualified for the Great Lakes District Tournament.

As the Roadrunners were working during the offseason to improve on its first season and bring even more talent to Dowagiac, Wasielewski received an offer from Rutgers University to be an assistant coach, which she excepted.

Southwestern Michigan College Athletic Director Rodell Davis sat down with the returning players and promised them he would find a coach that could not only continue what Wasielewski started, but build on it.

Jay Jenkins was hired, officially starting his coaching duties on Aug. 1, 2023. A new coach and a new system was now facing the members of the Roadrunners’ squad with less than three months to get to know each other and learn how Jenkins wanted to play the game.

Davis delivered on his promise as Jenkins put together a Roadrunner squad that improved its win total to 26 games, including another season with just one loss at home in the 1st Source Bank Fieldhouse, shared the Michigan Community College Athletic Association Western Conference championship, and not only qualified for the Great Lakes District Tournament again, but was the No. 1 seed for the B tournament.

Southwestern Michigan defeated Lakeland Community College and St. Clair County Community College to win the championship and earn an automatic bid into the Division II National Championships.

Sophomores Macy Laubach (Edwardsburg) and Cameron Thomas (Hazel Crest, Illinois) have become the undisputed leaders of the Roadrunners. They described their feeling heading into the 2023-24 season after learning their opponent for the tournament Tuesday.

“At first, it was like, ‘oh my gosh, we have to learn everything all over again,’” Laubach said. “But I think we all really trusted Rodell. He was really open with us about the whole process. He let us have a Zoom meeting with coach before, so we kind of had met him before he got here. We kind of anticipated a coaching style change, but I think it was good for us because we all adapted really well. It helped us get to where we are today.”

Thomas, who is the Roadrunners’ leading scorer, and shared MCCAA Western Conference Defensive Player of the Year honors with Laubach, said she knew right away that Jenkins was the right man for the job.

“Through the interview process, with coach Jay, that he was the person to take over the program,” she said. “Honestly, it has been a journey. In the beginning, we just had to adjust. It was a new coach; a new style of play and new things being asked of us. It just took a lot of adjustment. Once we adjusted, we great into a great team.”

Thomas said by the time SMC got to its first regular season game in early November, things clocked and the Roadrunners were ready for the challenges that were ahead of them.

Laubach said she felt the team shifted into another gear following its road victory over Kellogg Community College (82-80). The Bruins were the only team to defeat the Roadrunners at home in 2023-24.

“We had lost to them here, and we don’t lose here,” she said. “So, that was like we really needed to lock in. Ever since that game, I felt everyone just came together. It was a battle, and ever since, we have been battling every game.”

Jenkins said this has not been about him.

“I tell everyone, the team was already good before I got here,” he said. “They had a bond like no other, and that is what makes a team as good as what they are. The bond off the court. They trust each other, they believe in each other and the have fun together. The unity they have off the coach makes it so much easier to coach this team.”

Jenkins, who likes his teams to play fast, both on offense and defense, said it is the players that makes things go.

“I really just kind of sped things up defensive-wise, but all credit goes to the team. They are the ones out there doing the work,” he said. “I really am just sitting in the first chair.”