By Vin Gallo
Deputy Sports Editor
The four of them remember.
It is a moment that will always replay perfectly in each of their minds.
They remember their youthful faces, barely nine months removed from high school basketball competition, beaming with jubilation as they rushed their teammates at Ainsworth Gym’s center court in Northampton, Mass.
They remember turning the remaining adrenaline they had into pure joy, after transforming the seemingly impossible into a reality. They gathered together with their team of 15 in a mass of happiness and leaped up and down with their fingers raised skyward, chanting “Posse! Posse! Posse!” as the NEWMAC trophy was pumped over their heads.
The decibels of the final buzzer that day were no match for the cheers of triumph from the Springfield College 2013-14 women’s basketball team and its fans. A true underdog tale had been complete.
The Pride had defeated Coast Guard four days earlier. It was a beehive-like atmosphere created by an estimated attendance of 1,067, fueled by the presence of the academy’s loyal cadets. As a 15-11 road team with 11 underclassmen, the youthful squad from the birthplace of basketball took it to the Bears like seasoned veterans. They defeated the 19-7 home team 57-54, coming together for a crucial stop on the final possession where a three pointer from Coast’s Brittney Zimmerman, primed to send the tilt into overtime, and the gym into earsplitting delirium, fell short.
It had outlasted a powerful 20-7 Wheaton team in the semis, a squad that had taken Springfield down by 21 points in their first season meeting and ten in the second.
And now, the Pride, the sixth seed in the NEWMAC, which had been ranked ninth in preseason – had knocked out the conference’s No. 1 seeded titan in the Smith Pioneers, 57-54. Conference play was over. It was on to the NCAA tournament.
Not a bad start to the collegiate careers of then freshman Lexi Windwer, Ava Adamopoulos, Danielle Racette, and Molly McCausland.
“It was literally a Cinderella story,” recalled Adamopoulos. “We had awesome leaders, we peaked at the right time. We were the team that wasn’t supposed to be there, that wasn’t supposed to do it. [But] we got to Smith and we had the chemistry, the energy, and the leadership. We just had ‘it.’”
By the conclusion of their rookie seasons, a friendship between the four first year players was steadily blossoming. However, if one was to ask them, they may imply that it didn’t start out that way. “Our first impressions of each other is nothing like what they are now,” said Windwer. “It’s funny, [Ava and I] we were looking at each other from across the room during our recruit visit like, ‘Who are you? What are you doing here?’”
The element of unfamiliarity may have caused a sense of shyness in the incoming freshman. But Springfield women’s basketball head coach Naomi Graves was not going to allow her players to stay distant from one another. Racette first encountered Windwer whilst meeting with her soon-to-be-college coach. “Coach introduced us and had us exchange phone numbers,” Racette said. “So we awkwardly did – because coach told us too.” Graves proceeded to encourage Racette and Windwer to keep in touch and suggested that the two could room together. Racette recalls her mother catching ear of the idea. “[I was] asked everyday if I texted Lexi,” she said with a smile. “And I was like, ‘No, she can text me!’”
Though they would begin by easing into one another’s company, the four quickly found themselves in the same boat during Graves’ practices. Their impressions of one another may have been mixed, but their read on their new coach was of an identical verdict.
“Intense,” said Windwer.
Very intense,” echoed Adamopoulos. “Very, very intense.”
“She just has this really competitive spirit, and she [instilled it] it on all of us,” added McCausland.
They can still picture the white board that would keep a close track on their play. Graves would record both positive habits and negative habits. More negatives than positives would always spell sprints as penalty. Though the four look back now, and have a great understanding with where Graves was going by stressing the little things.
“If we miss a boxout, she’s going to get on us for that, and she’s right,” said Windwer. “It’s good that she holds us accountable. A lot of times she talks about grit when we’re down because if we have that, that can bring us together. [It’s about] having heart and passion for the game.”
After the previous 2012-13 campaign ending in a 4-20 finish, Graves was looking for a young core who would trust the process of building Springfield basketball back up, and work towards unlocking their potential as college basketball players. She saw such attributes in the group of Windwer, Adamopoulos, Racette, and McCausland.
“They brought energy, enthusiasm and determination to succeed,” said Graves. “They understood where they were in the big picture, and when they got their opportunity they helped prove that Springfield College women’s basketball was back – that we weren’t going to be denied anymore. They trusted that our program would turn it around, that down the road we would be a team to be reckoned with.”
Out of the four first year players, Windwer was the sole freshman who started. To Graves, the graduate of Thayer Academy, from the Boston suburbs of Milton, Mass., brought a sharpshooter’s game, and could stretch the floor for the Pride offense.
“When Lexi came in, her commitment to the game, and her determination [stood out to me],” Graves explained. “We were coming off of a 4-20 season, so we needed to make some changes. Lexi could flat out shoot the basketball, that was her role in high school, and we needed that on the team.”
Growing up across the Chicopee River in Ludlow Mass., where soccer is a king sport, Adamopoulos did not decide to play college basketball until the summer of her senior year in high school. Despite the late decision, Adamopoulos did not skip a beat, and would be aggressively backing down some of the NEWMACs toughest post defenders only months later, scoring 10 points in the 2013-14 championship game.
“When Ava first came to me we had an established relationship, because she had come to my basketball camp,” said Graves. “What I’m most proud about in her is her ability to focus in on what she does well [offensive proficiency in the post and formidable rebounding].”
Adamopoulos has high praise for Graves, who had been a post player herself in college herself, for giving her a plethora of paint play pointers.
“She’s very passionate and incredibly knowledgeable about the post game,” she said. “My knowledge has drastically increased playing under her. She’s able to teach anything; from defense, offensive skills, offensive moves, and little tips on rebounding. She does a great job of passing that along, and she really believes in our post players.”
Racette has been a student of the game for as long as she could remember. The point guard grew up in the gym in the mildly populated town of North Adams, Mass., where she was coached by her father, Jack Racette. Danielle Racette crafted a game that would translate into the attributes of a relentless on-ball defender and an invaluable floor general for Springfield. Although back discomfort has also been a challenge throughout her career, Racette has approached each game with a consistent fighting spirit.
“Danielle has a very strong basketball IQ, and she’s intrinsically motivated,” Graves said. “She always believes that we can do it and that we’ll find a way. She has a personal drive inside herself, she’s challenged against opponents who don’t believe she can score – she’s competitive and loves to prove that she can play.”
As a player who seemingly has limitless drive, Racette said that her coach’s desire to win, helped push her competitiveness even further.
“When [Coach Graves] talked to me in a stern, ‘This is what you have to do’ [tone] it would really fire me up,” she said. “The way she puts things out there to you – [it’s her way of saying] ‘it’s game time, its time to go, I need more from you.’ For me that’s always helpful. When she’s intense, she makes me more intense.”
Before venturing to Springfield College, McCausland played for a winning program at Millbury High School, as the Woolies competed in States in both her freshman and sophomore year while salvaging conference titles in her junior and senior year. Though after finishing her high school stint with a successful program, McCausland faced injury obstacles during the beginning of college play, and struggled to see the hardwood.
“Molly had the worst [possible] start to her college career – she was hurt and hardly saw any time her first year,” Graves explained. “[But] as she evolved into the role that we wanted from her, she’d be that spark off the bench.”
McCausland refused to break. After fighting for minutes, the shooting guard went on a torrid run to end her junior year. She netted a career high 12 points in an early February contest against Clark, before following up on the scoring outburst with a career best seven rebounds against Coast Guard one week later.
Graves said, “When I got a chance to see what [McCausland] could do I thought, ‘This kid’s going to come back and do some really good things her senior year.’ And she’s lived up to it. Molly’s like that silent killer. She steps up big in key moments and changes momentum.”
McCausland has now started in every game for the Pride in 2016-17.
The four seniors have embraced the role as leaders.
“We’ve become more vocal from freshman year,” McCausland said. “I know I didn’t say anything my freshman year – I wasn’t going to step in the juniors and seniors ways. Now that we’re the upper classmen we have to take the younger players under our wings and show them how Springfield basketball plays.”
The underclassmen on the Pride certainly have a group of seniors to turn to with a wide array of play style knowledge. Windwer and McCausland for wing scoring, Racette for how to run the show, and Adamopoulos for post play.
“We’re all leaders on the floor but we bring it in different ways,” said Windwer. “One way may work for someone, [while] another way may work for someone else.”
In the waning days of the regular season, with one game remaining against NEWMAC No. 1 Babson, Graves has high hopes for her 2016-17 team. She also has high hopes for her four senior captains, who were forced to grow drastically as players within their first 28 games, fresh off the high school pine, to help beat three NEWMAC Goliaths those three years ago. Since the arrival of Lexi Windwer, Ava Adamopoulos, Danielle Racette, and Molly McCausland, the Springfield Pride has gone 67-34.
“This is when they can leave their mark on their program,” said Graves. “They set the tone now, they set the table. Winning NEWMACs takes keeping the players hungry, keeping them positive on the bench. My hope is that we win. We all want to get to that NEWMAC championship and take it, and I want my seniors to know at the end of the day when the season ends that they did their best.”
Who are the freshman of that 2013-14 Cinderella team today? McCausland is fourth in the NEWMAC in three point percentage (40 percent). Windwer is the program’s new leader in career three pointers made. Racette leads NEWMAC point guards in assist/turnover ratio. Adamopoulos is second in the conference in scoring and fifth in rebounding. The four of them are grown players now.
And the final page is in their hands.