WILMINGTON, Ohio - Wilmington College is in the midst of celebrating its 150th anniversary, and throughout the last year, the College has highlighted some of its most important moments in a series entitled, "Sesquicenteinnial Moment(s)". This installment features perhaps the greatest athletic achievement in Wilmington's history to date - women's basketball's run to capturing the 2004 national championship.
Setting the scene for the 2004 season and tournament run requires a look back at the previous two seasons. Under the direction of longtime Head Coach Jerry Scheve, the Fightin' Quakers ran roughshod through the rigorous Ohio Athletic Conference (OAC) in both the 2001-02 and 2002-03 seasons, finishing both years with a 17-1 conference mark and claiming two OAC Tournament titles. Wilmington entered the 2002 NCAA Division III Tournament with a 26-1 record, and after a bye, defeated Bethany College (West Virginia) 82-66 and Hope College (Michigan) 89-81 to setup an "Elite Eight" matchup with DePauw University (Indiana) at Fred Raizk Arena. The game was a one-possession contest at halftime, but the Tigers pulled away in the second half, denying Wilmington its first appearance in the "Final Four". A year later, Wilmington brought a 25-2 record to the 2003 NCAA Division III Tournament, but after defeating OAC rival Baldwin Wallace University, Hope got its revenge with a 77-73 victory in a "Sweet 16" contest at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
The 2003-04 season took a different path. For the first time in three years, Wilmington did not win the OAC and finished third in the conference with a 14-4 record. The Quakers, needing to win the OAC to qualify for a third consecutive NCAA Division III Tournament, defeated Muskingum University 81-60 in the quarterfinals before avenging two regular season losses to Capital University with a 83-69 win in Bexley. Otterbein University upset top-seeded Baldwin Wallace, giving Wilmington a home game in the tournament title game. The Quakers' seniors - seniors Tara Rausch, Brittney Morris, Amy Kincer and Emily Cummins - were determined to continue their careers as Wilmington pulled away from the Cardinals 73-54 to cut down the nets.
Those nets were not the only ones Wilmington aimed to cut down, and the Quakers' 2004 NCAA Division III Tournament run began with a home game with Albion College (Michigan). The Britons led the entire first half and took a 40-37 lead into halftime. In what would become a theme for the tournament, the Quakers battled back from a deficit, which reached a dozen points in the second half, to continue their season. Trailing 56-44 with just over 12 minutes to play, Wilmington ended the game on a 22-6 run thanks in part to a 20-point, nine-rebound performance from Kincer. The next round, played at Franklin College, proved to be Wilmington's easiest contest of the run as the Quakers downed the Grizzlies 75-60.
Wilmington, which was into the "Sweet 16" for the third season in a row, traveled to rival Thomas More University (then College) looking to get even with the Saints, who edged the Quakers 78-75 in the season-opener at Fred Raizk Arena. In a very back-and-forth game, Cummins poured in a game-high 26 points on 5-of-7 shooting from distance. Rausch, Kincer and junior Siobhan Zerilla all tallied double-doubles to lead the Quakers to a 78-75 win and a date with the University of Puget Sound (Washington) in the "Elite Eight". There, the Quakers found themselves trailing by three (60-57) with 90 seconds to play, but a Kincer jumper followed by a go-ahead basket from Cummins ensuring Wilmington's fate would be different than 2002. An offensive foul followed, and Erica Smith, a freshman who scored a team-high 16 points, sent the Quakers to the "Final Four" with a pair of free throws in the final seconds for the 63-60 victory. Cummins was named Most Valuable Player of the pod at Thomas More.
At the traditional banquet the night before the semifinals, Morris, who missed the NCAA Division III Tournament run due to an injury, served as Wilmington's speaker for the event. Her speech that night can be described by a single proclamation, "We are here to win the national championship." Against the University of Rochester (New York) in the national semifinals, the first half looked similar to the Albion game, and put Morris's promise in jeopardy. Rochester, playing in its second consecutive "Final Four", took a 35-28 lead into halftime, but as Scheve said - "We've got them right where we want them." Wilmington battled back to tie the game with eight minutes to play, and ended the game on a 19-8 run. Four of the Quakers' starters finished in double figures with Cummins' 21 points leading the way while Zerilla turned in a double-double. The one that didn't was Morris's replacement in the starting lineup, freshman point guard Sam Hood. Her time would come, however, in the national title game.
Wilmington's opponent in the national championship was No. 1-ranked and undefeated Bowdoin College (Maine). The Quakers once again found themselves down at halftime, this time 28-23, and trailed by five with 4:44 to play. Wilmington's size advantage, which culminated in a 51-38 rebounding edge, began to take its toll on the Polar Bears, however, as an old-fashioned, three-point play from Rausch tied the game with 2:28 to play. Hood, who had locked down Bowdoin's top scorer Laura Trinkle to a single shot and two turnovers over the final eight minutes, etched her name in Quaker lore, taking a pass from Kincer and breaking a 51-51 tie with a go-ahead triple with just over a minute to go. A defensive stop followed, and Wilmington had completed incredible postseason run to earn the school's first and currently only team national championship.
In the words of Head Coach Jerry Scheve, who announced his retirement earlier this year after 30 years leading the program, said - "They [the 2003-04 team] accomplished more than any other team at Wilmington College. I think when it's all said and done, this is the best team I ever had. They played like a team I always dreamed about."
The 2003-04 team, along with its head coach, were inducted into the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame on May 17, 2014, seven years to the day before this story was published.