The University of Cincinnati Clermont College Lady Cougars earned their sixth straight bid to the United States Collegiate Athletic Association National Tournament last week despite playing a more difficult schedule, resulting in a less-flattering win-loss record.
“This means a lot, being the sixth straight year and we were a little more on pins and needles because we updated our scheduling,” the Lady Cougars head coach Michael Matthews said. “We had a few more losses than we normally do. Most of the schools (in the tournament) had more wins because they were playing teams more on their level and we’re always reaching out to play teams above our level to make us better. So, it was tenuous down to the last day whether we would get in or not.”
The USCAA added a Division II to their ranks this year to accommodate teams like Clermont College who do not give out athletic scholarships. The Lady Cougars went through their regular season, putting together a 17-15 record.
While the record doesn’t jump out at you as being exceptional, the consideration that most of the teams the Lady Cougars played were either NAIA or USCAA Division I swayed the selection committee to admit UC Clermont.
As a member of the polling committee, Matthews knows firsthand the hard work that goes into ranking the teams, but he says that the duration of the season doesn’t always work favorably for teams who may accumulate losses along the way.
“It takes a lot of work to break down the teams in the division and then you have look at the teams that they play and then you have to break down those teams,” Matthews explained. “You’re looking to see how good a team is and how tough a schedule is, so it takes a lot of time and you get in a grove of knowing what the top-10 is going to be and you lose sight of the second half of the schedule. I think (what helped UC Clermont) was that we were able to send in an informational sheet highlighting our schedule. We had 26 of our 34 games against teams that would have been in the USCAA Division I and I don’t think people knew that.”
Usually, the USCAA determines tournament teams through a selection process that takes highly into account their power rankings. As a result of their difficult schedule, the Lady Cougars were on the periphery of the top-10 for most of the season, but were able to sneak in due to a strong finish to the regular season.
“We won eight of our last 10 games and that’s one of the criteria that the committee is supposed to consider in the final poll,” Matthews said. “We also had a reputation of making the tournament and upsetting the No. 1 seed. So, I told (the committee) that I felt our tougher schedule and our tradition in the tournament of doing well against the scholarship schools should move us up.”
The Lady Cougars finished the regular season seventh in the power rankings and earned the No. 6 seed in the National Tournament, setting them up for a first-round matchup with the Albany College of Pharmacy on Thursday, Feb. 28.
UC Clermont has a stable of talent that is headed by Felicity-Franklin graduate Marissa Stutz. A recently named two-time All-American, Stutz is a do-it-all player for the Lady Cougars that usually draws the most attention from opponents. Even if Stutz is keyed upon by opposing defenses, her rebounding and facilitating abilities keep the Lady Cougars in the game.
Ashley Keither, a 5-foot-7 junior out of Clark Montessori has stepped up when Stutz has been shut down to help keep the Lady Cougars’ offense productive. Accompanied by Tess Jenike and Stacie Lee, UC Clermont has numerous offensive options.
With the quick turnaround from regular season to tournament play, the Lady Cougars departed for Uniontown, Pa. at 6:30 a.m. on Tuesday to get into town and get settled in. In the lead up to their first-round game, the Lady Cougars will take part in a parade and skills challenge on Wednesday, before opening tournament play on Thursday night.
While their success rate in the USCAA Tournament is high, Coach Matthews and the Lady Cougars aren’t getting ahead of themselves, taking the tournament one round at a time.
“To do well in the tournament, you have to win the first game,” Matthews said. “We don’t worry about who’s in the tournament, it’s just about the one game. We started doing that with our last 10 games (of the regular season). We’d say, ‘how many games are left in the season?’ and the girls would say, ‘one.’ Then after we would win, we’d say, ‘how many games are left?’ and they would say, ‘one.’ So, our expectations are to do well. We finished our season against Kentucky Christian, a very good team ranked No. 2 in the nation their division. Hopefully that will carry on into the tournament and I don’t see a reason why it shouldn’t.”
The Lady Cougars’ games, along with all games from the USCAA National Tournament will be broadcast on ESPN Radio Williamsport 104.1 and 1050 AM. The radio broadcast will be simulcast with a live video feed produced by Tourbeau Sports Group that will be available on www.theuscaa.com.