All good things must come to an end. Even historically good things. For Vassar’s women’s basketball team, the end to a storybook season came on the first night of March in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
After hanging with the Knights of SUNY Geneseo for three quarters, the Brewers were buried by an uncharacteristic three-point barrage that helped Geneseo outscore the Brewers 20-5 in the fourth quarter en route to a 74-55 final. Despite the loss, Vassar finished the season having set school records in conference wins (14) and consecutive wins (16). The Brewers—knocked out of the Liberty League tournament in the semifinals by RIT—received an at-large bid to the tournament, an acknowledgment of the impressive regular season they put together.
For most of the game, Vassar and Geneseo were locked in a back-and-forth battle—the stuff March is made of. After the Knights raced out to a 19-8 lead in the first six minutes, Head Coach Candice Signor-Brown called timeout and steadied her team. Prior to the game, the tenth-year coach had admitted that the Brewers were “less balanced” with the loss of second-leading scorer and Liberty League Second Teamer Jackie Cenan, a junior, whose knee injury in the team’s penultimate Liberty League contest swung the momentum of that game and, to hear any number of Vassar fans tell it, the trajectory of the season as a whole.
Brown and the Brewers had faith in the depth of their squad, however, and after the first-quarter timeout, Vassar stormed back, putting to rest any questions about how they’d survive in the Big Dance without their most versatile player. Led by junior Sophie Nick, a First Team All-Liberty League selection, Vassar scored 11 of the game’s next 13 points, cutting the deficit to four by the end of the first quarter. Said Nick via email of the Brewers’ tenacity: “We let them get out to an early lead, but we were able to battle back and showed a lot of grit.”
Senior forward Julia Roelke provided a noticeable spark off the bench, hitting two jumpers in the first half, rebounding tenaciously and deflecting a number of Geneseo’s passes. After trading baskets for the entire second quarter, the Brewers and the Knights went to their locker rooms with the Knights leading 37-34.
The third quarter was full of the same blow-for-blow action as the first half; Geneseo twice built up a nine-point lead, only for Vassar to battle back. Nick hit a jumper at the third-quarter buzzer, pulling the Brewers within four going into the final period. A Nick three-pointer brought Vassar within two points with eight minutes to play—but then the floodgates opened. Geneseo, a team that averaged just six three-point makes per game, made five in the final seven minutes alone to run away with the contest. The loss wasn’t due to lack of execution, according to Nick, who said, “The plan going into the game was to keep them out of the paint and make every shot difficult.” With the Knights shooting a mere 5-for-15 from two-point range in the second half, it was their prolific long-range shooting that carried them to the win.
The Brewers finished the season 21-7, and 14-4 in the Liberty League. They ran off one of the most remarkable streaks in Vassar history, winning 16 straight games. For the average student, just making it through the coldest part of winter, surviving finals and reaching winter break is an accomplishment. For the Brewers, however, December and January also meant winning every single game, as they went 14-0 during a stretch of the year where even getting to class is a test of willpower. Alone on the tundra of Vassar’s campus for all of January break, the team shaped an identity that is sure to carry the Brewers to success beyond this season. Senior Maddie Leong, who was named Liberty League Defensive Player of the Year, spoke to the unique nature of her team: “Everyone was bought in. I barely ever went to the gym without seeing someone else from the team getting extra shots up. And we all had a lot of fun working hard.”
The Brewers’ positive energy was evident in everything they did, from their WoHA (Work Hard) mantra that they stamped on their arms before every game, to the #TrickShotTuesdays that graced the Instagram feeds of many Vassar students. Indeed, the upbeat cry of “Let’s go VC!” could be heard often, and at great distances, from the Brewer bench and locker room before, during and after games.
Winning is fun, and Vassar women’s basketball has good reason to expect a fun 201920 campaign. The Brewers return their top seven scorers, including Nick, Cenan and junior sharpshooter Isa Peczuh, whose 83 three-pointers set a Vassar single-season record. First-years Dani Douglas and Sarah Gillooly played major minutes off the bench, and Coach Signor-Brown, who for the third time in her tenure won Liberty League Coaching Staff of the Year (along with assistant Claire Mattox), is sure to be hard at work on the recruiting trail this spring and summer, looking to bolster an already promising squad.
Nick, surveying the future, said: “One of our main goals was to win a Liberty League championship. Unfortunately, we came up short so it will definitely be a focus next season. In addition, our eyes will be set on returning to the NCAA tournament and advancing deeper into the bracket.” The remarkable success of this season, combined with the returning talent and the Brewers’ noted work ethic, promises an exciting season come next winter. As Nick promised, “We now know what it takes to compete at such a high level and we will be working every day to elevate our game.”