Are you looking for a team to cheer for in March Madness this weekend? It’s still early, so most people’s brackets are still in tact. Maybe you don’t need extra incentive to cheer for anyone in the Big Dance, but let me suggest to you a team from the “Little Dance.” The Division III NCAA Final Four is being held this weekend.
The women are playing in Holland, Michigan while the men are playing in Salem, Virginia. While the big schools of Illinois went ‘ofer’ the tourney, sorry Wildcats, Illini, Salukies, Blue Demons and the like, two teams from Illinois have kept their championship dreams alive.
The Titans of Illinois Wesleyan have a team in both Final Fours (and I should add that the Titans would mop up either Final Four in a mascot bracket). Division III athletics might not have the flash or the talent of their DI counterparts, but they mostly don’t have the agents, egos, shoe deals or point-shaving scandals either. They also still live up the moniker student-athlete.
The Illinois Wesleyan Women have had an especially tumultuous season. In today’s Chicago Tribune is a fabulous piece by David Haugh. Titan head coach Mia Smith has coached the majority of this basketball season while undergoing treatment for breast cancer.
According to Haugh, she started chemotherapy in December. On December 10, the Titans record was an uncharacteristic 3-4. In 2011, the Titans fourth loss came in late January on their way to the school’s first-ever trip to the Final Four. In 2010, the Titans lost only two games all year. It is hard to say why they had the difficult start, but the four teams they lost to all finished in the top 20 according to d3hoops.com. According to some figures, the Titans faced the second toughest schedule in the nation. When you factor in breast cancer into their list of opponents, I think it’s safe to say it was tougher than that.
Mia Smith is the all-time winningest coach at Illinois Wesleyan. In her 14th season, Smith is at the helm of one of the dominant programs in the country (since the 06-07 season her Titans are 159-23) . Her teams play a frenetic full-court press that she likes to call “Run and Jump.” They shoot well, run fast, dive for loose balls, and scrap for every rebound. They are a fun team to watch and have developed a strong fan base that well surely support them well in Holland this weekend.
Smith has had a lot of support this season. Chemotherapy is one of the worst things a person can endure. I don’t know all the details, but it is basically poison that kills everything it can. To say that it leaves people with less energy is like saying a marathon is a light stroll. Coaching basketball is a high-energy profession. Clearly the Titans have fed off of her strength, but according to her she has fed off of her player’s strength as well.
She told David Haugh “People have thanked me for being a good role model for these young ladies as I endured hardship, but I’m telling you, it’s the other way around. All I had to do was think of how hard those girls work at practice, and that was all the inspiration I needed to get up.”
So tonight as you’re following the madness on four different national cable networks plus highlights on the ESPN family, can I suggest one more team to support? They aren’t on any of the brackets you filled out, but they’re worth a moment or two. Drop by this site to watch the games. There won’t be any agents or NBA scouts. There will be eight teams playing their hearts out and a few thousand loyal fans hoping to witness their own one shining moment.
There will be one coach that has stared down cancer, and a team that has carried her through it. I’ve said it before, but tonight with my computer on my lap as a I agonize over every basket while switching between games, it will never be more true. I’m proud to be a Titan.