Recognizing Champions A look into the No. 1 NCAA Division III women's basketball team in the nation and the growing fan support that challenges nationally held narratives By Sarah Corso

On Feb. 4, 2017, the Amherst College women’s basketball team was ranked the No. 2 NCAA Division III team in the country, only behind New England Small College Athletic Conference opponent Tufts University. The teams were headed into their highly anticipated and only regular season meeting at Tufts later that night.

As a senior captain playing in her final season for Amherst College, Alison Doswell knew the impact this game could have on the rest of the season and her last quest for a National Championship. She was even more encouraged upon hearing news that students from Amherst were planning to journey to Tufts to cheer them on. This was an unusual occurrence (for a women’s basketball game) that eventually developed into a favorable trend.

The stigma around women’s basketball being uncompetitive and having teams that are “too good” for the sport is loud nationally but nearly non-existent on the Amherst College campus. There are students who are unenthused by a top women's team, but alternatively, a bigger and better culture of support developed for the lady Mammoths over the course of the 2016-2017 season.

Earlier that day in February, sophomore John Vasiliu of the Amherst College baseball team rounded up three cars of friends to road trip across Massachusetts to see the two undefeated teams battle it out. As far as they were concerned, they needed to go represent Amherst in the all-out turf war that has been brewing in the NESCAC over the last three years. In 2015, Tufts broke Amherst College’s historic 100-game home winning streak.

There were about 13 of them and about 900 Tufts fans in attendance, but somehow, they said, the gym was silent, anxiously awaiting a moment that could break the game wide open. Looking for a way to give Amherst an advantage, they started to jump and shout behind the Amherst bench. Next thing they knew, the small compact building had energy, fans from respective teams were yelling back and forth, and the game was close.

Amherst won by one point, remained undefeated, took control of the No. 1 seed and never looked back.

A rowdy section of male peers agitating the opposing crowd and incorporating energy into the game is often not seen at women’s collegiate basketball games, but for every home game after that, they stood proudly and cheered loudly for the success of the women in purple and white.

According to Doswell, this was a new but much-welcomed change to the attention and support the Amherst women’s basketball team had received from their peers in years prior.

Each game had a theme.

(Photos by Sarah Corso)

Against Colby College in the NESCAC semi-finals, Vasiliu and friends dressed up in suits as ESPN analysts. Props included an ESPN flag, table, mugs, pens, radio and suits. The next game was beach themed, and the one after that was toga themed. When they didn’t have a theme, Billy Rotella of the Amherst Football team would dress in a penguin onesie.

Rotella read passages from popular Dr. Seuss books, such as Green Eggs and Ham, during opponent free throws. One time the group even started a “Pant-Suit” chant aimed at University of Mary Washington Head Coach Deena Applebury, who was donning a tan pant suit. At half-time she wanted them ejected. The police declined her request.

But the gym was always loudest when Doswell did what she does best -- draining a three pointer, beating her defender down low one-on-one, displaying unmatched physical strength and executing.

Alison Doswell (23) inbound's the ball during a 76-35 win against Bates College on Saturday, Feb. 18, 2017. (Photo By Sarah Corso)

The practices during the season lasted longer than past years. Being told practice would last just two hours was a promise that was often broken.

Two hours and 40 minutes was more like it. Outside of practice, individual workouts and gym time were required. And of course, making time for academics.

Four years ago, Doswell and her twin sister, Meredith, were recruited to Amherst College by Head Coach G.P. Gromacki from their hometown in Richmond, Virginia.

At first, Amherst, Massachusetts, did not appeal to the twins who wanted to play basketball together in college, just as they had done since they were 5 years old. It took multiple phone calls, some of which were ignored on purpose, by Gromacki to finally convince the Doswells to commit.

Perhaps the biggest selling point was that Gromacki’s teams had gone to the Final Four in the Division III tournament five straight years prior. They were dazzled by the potential for achieving the ultimate success: the NCAA Division III National Championship.

After two underwhelming years with a young starting core that got eliminated in the Sweet Sixteen two years ago and then in a heartbreaking Final Four last season, the drive for a championship in the Doswells’ senior season was higher than ever, and the focus that accompanied it was unwavering.

During the 2016-2017 season, Amherst averaged about 70 points per game while opponents averaged only 43. The average margin of victory was over 20 points.

(Photo By Sarah Corso)

From afar this looks like a disconnect between Amherst and their opponents in terms of skill but Alison Doswell challenged that notion.

“On the surface, it seems kind of easy, and looking back at it, oh yeah, we didn’t have many close games, but every day we had to go in and work hard every game, and we had to be focused,” she said.

All those long hours on the court and the hard work was evident to their new section of fans and made each game enjoyable. Both Vasiliu and Doswell asserted that to really appreciate their game and even women’s basketball in general, you must look deeper and appreciate more than just the score.

“Part of it is going and appreciating how hard they work,” Vasiliu said. “That’s the reason they are winning by 40, not because they are naturally better than everyone else but because they work hard and work harder than anybody else.”

Big crowds and peer support are not as hard to come by for the Amherst College men’s basketball team, who went 17-8 on the season. They averaged about double the attendance of the women’s basketball games.

One argument as to why a No. 1 women’s team doesn’t have nearly the attendance as its lower ranked men’s team does is that the score is closer and, therefore, the game is more exciting.

“I’ll ask people to come to our game and they be like ‘oh is the team any good?’,” Doswell said. “People want closer games. I’ve heard that a lot.”

This same perception is held on the national scale with the UConn Huskies and women’s basketball in general.

“I mean I definitely like to see more people appreciate [the sport] especially when so many people appreciate men’s basketball and it’s not like men’s and women’s lacrosse,” Doswell said. “We literally play the same exact game with the same skills. We work just as hard.”

(Photo By Sarah Corso)

After powering their way to a NESCAC Championship and through the opening round of the NCAA tournament this season, Amherst College found themselves where they worked to be: competing in the NCAA Division III National Championship game.

Even better was the opponent: Tufts.

The advantage favored Amherst who had defeated Tufts two times this season, one being the NESCAC Championship game three weeks earlier.

This time the game was being played in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which made it difficult to secure the growing fan presence that was, at points, overbearing for other teams all throughout the playoffs back in Amherst.

Evidently, Alison and Meredith’s mom, Mary Doswell, thought of the perfect way to bring the Amherst fans spirit to Michigan. Fatheads on sticks.

Big, blown up pictures of Vasiliu and Rotella’s faces made its way to the National Championship game. Even from a computer stream, Rotella’s head could be seen in the crowd surrounded by the family and friends of the players. This spoke volumes to how much their support meant to the team, to the season, and to this big stage moment.

Amherst controlled the entire game, out-strategizing the skilled Tufts offense and holding them to just six points in the entire first half. With under two minutes to go in the game, with a commanding 27-point lead, Gromacki replaced his starting five with five bench players. Then replaced Jamie Renner and Maeve McNamara, who just entered the game, with two more bench players, making sure everyone got to play in the Championship game.

The final score was 52-29, the lowest combined scoring championship game in the history of Division III. Doswell, D3hoops.com First-Team All-American and Most Outstanding Player of the National Finals, led her team with 21 points and five rebounds.

Blue, purple and white confetti cluttered the floor. So did the Amherst fan section and the ‘super-fan’ fatheads.

Amherst College Women's Basketball team celebrate the NCAA Division III National Championship victory with family and friends in Grand Rapids, Michigan on March 18, 2017. (COURTESY STEVE FROMMELL/d3photography.com)

For Doswell, a championship victory was bittersweet. Her career came to an end as Amherst College’s all-time leading scorer with 1,572 points over four years representing the Purple and White. When reminiscing on the moment, she could only describe the win as “pure happiness.”

Gromacki captured his second National Championship and improved his coaching record at Amherst to 295-24. He has won seven of the last ten NESCAC Championships, proving that different players can achieve the same result with consistent hard work.

Doswell and her teammates felt relief when the season ended undefeated at 33-0, a goal that was present in the backs of their minds all season. It felt nice to be recognized for it, too.

“It’s nice to see this year the good following from the guys because it’s nice to feel like it’s something to people, which we haven’t felt like in the past few years,” Doswell said.

Barely one week after arriving home undefeated with the championship trophy, the team began its off-season training with pick-up games at the gym.

Though she can hardly believe it, Doswell's college playing years are behind her. The long practices, the devastating playoff losses, the gratifying feeling she gets after a big win, and getting to share the court with her twin, Meredith, are over. However, for the sake and growth of women's basketball, she hopes the support she and the team received from peers during her final season is not.

Amherst College celebrates its NCAA Division III women’s basketball championship after beating Tufts University, Sat. March 18, 2017, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. (COURTESY STEVE FROMMELL/d3photography.com)
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