NORTHAMPTON — The antique basketball uniforms — bloomers and all — have been discarded in the bowels of Smith College. The students no longer annually reenact the first women’s game ever played, though it was a fitting tribute at a school known far more for its academics than its athletics — a celebration of basketball history at a school without much of a basketball present.
That has changed over the past few years, culminating in Smith College’s first-ever bid to the women’s Division 3 NCAA Tournament, which begins Friday at the University of Southern Maine.
Finally, 120 years after basketball Hall of Famer Senda Berenson brought basketball to Smith, the school finally has a team worthy of its past.
“I take it very personally that I can say this is the birthplace of women’s basketball,’’ coach Lynn Hersey said. “I recognize that there isn’t another college coach — outside of on the men’s side, Springfield College — where you can say that.’’
Not that it mattered for a long time. Instead of being able to capitalize on its history, on being steeped in the game of basketball, Smith had little success. There were a few bright spots, a few winning records. But mostly, the team and the school were content with mediocrity — as long as it came with a high grade point average.
As student Abbey Knickerbocker said, “Historically they’re very known for their athletics. But it’s kind of tapered off more toward academics.’’
It took a certain student to enroll at Smith, one intellectual enough to do well in the classroom, one interested in studying in a single-sex environment, one that fit Northampton.
“Clearly Smith is a hard place to be at, whether it’s academically or socially or that athletics isn’t as predominant as it might be at other schools,’’ senior cocaptain Amanda Zakoske said. “It takes an interesting person to stick it out here.’’
That didn’t always bring the best basketball talent to town.
But Hersey has built a team worthy of its first NCAA bid. She has capitalized on the school’s history, on its part in the foundation of women’s basketball, and has used that to overcome Smith’s image as a place where sports don’t succeed.
“The biggest challenge was the belief that Smith could do something like this,’’ Hersey said.
So she uses Berenson’s legacy, emphasizes its worth, persuades students they want to come and build something at Smith.
“It kind of gave us a little push to know that it all started here,’’ senior cocaptain Devon Quattrocchi said. “It’s just nice that Smith celebrates the history but is also very interested in moving forward.’’
To that end, the culture needed to be changed. A new standard needed to be set. And suddenly, with the wins mounting, the basketball team began to see interest from people who had never paid attention before — such as school president Carol Christ, who appeared in the stands last season.
“I think I always allowed that to push me harder, realizing that we can’t settle for anything, we can’t let being at an academic school that’s not known for sports make us work less hard than everyone else,’’ Quattrocchi said.
It almost didn’t happen, though. Smith, which had been favored in the New England Women’s Athletic Conference tournament, was upset by
Wellesley in the semifinals. The Pioneers had beaten Wellesley by 10 just one week earlier.
That led to a tense selection day on Monday, with the 22-4 team gathered around a room, waiting anxiously to hear — or not hear — the Smith name called.
“It was unreal,’’ Zakoske said. “It was pressure-filled, intense. I swear it was the longest 15 minutes of our lives. Then it was just relief and joy and gratitude, just this crazy rush of emotions.’’
They had made it, had changed what they wanted to change, had found a way to win at a place where it didn’t always seem possible.
And, by doing that, they began to see differences around them.
“I think it’s changing not only our program, but I think all the other sports here are changing, changing the whole culture here’’ Quattrocchi said.
Added Zakoske, “It’s OK to want to win. Everyone comes here and our sports team are fun and they’re always these great groups of people — but it’s OK to do it all. It’s OK to be pre-med and be on sports teams that win.’’
Perhaps it’s fitting that it happened this year. On the recommendation of a recent alumna, Jessica Welk, Smith named its court after Berenson before the start of the season, though it has yet to be officially dedicated.
“Maybe there’s some magic to that,’’ athletic director Lynn Oberbillig said. “Something good after we paid attention to our heritage.’’
It’s not the same game. After all, now women can dribble and run up and down the court. Berenson, in fact, modified the game to a six-on-six version, so it was less strenuous for women, and followed that up with her “Basketball Guide for Women.’’
As Oberbillig said, “I think Senda would be amazed at what women’s basketball is today. It would be foreign to her, but I think she would be proud.’’
Berenson finally presides over what she started at Smith, with a banner in the gym, with her name on the court. Just 30 minutes away, her picture — in profile — is up with the basketball greats at the Hall of Fame in Springfield, labeled as the “Mother of Women’s Basketball.’’ She is near Tommy Heinsohn and Dean Smith, John Havlicek and Sam Jones.
And over at Smith, they feel grateful for her contribution, grateful for what she did for them. Grateful, too, that they’ve been able to balance athletics with academics, that they’ve been able to have it all.
“It’s just a pride thing for us,’’ Hersey said. “We want to make the people before us feel proud of what we’re trying to accomplish today.
“We’re bringing the Smith name into a different limelight and we’re doing it in a way that’s filled with integrity. Our ancestors in this sport here would be very proud of us.’’