‘Burn the Boats’ Became Rallying Cry for Antelopes
By Doug Carroll
POMONA, Calif. — They’ve won 28 of 30 games and survived a stern first-round test in the NCAA Division II West Regional. All season, they’ve been on an historic journey together, blending veteran players, freshmen and junior-college transfers.
They’re survivors, the 11 members of the GCU women’s basketball team, and they’ve come too far to turn back now. And they can’t, anyway, because they’ve burned their boats.
“At first, we were like, ‘What is he talkiing about?’” recalls Samantha Murphy, familiar with May’s annual custom of selecting a team theme and Scripture verse.
It might have seemed a tad oddball, but May had thought this through. He knew that with Murphy and Rosalyn Nelson playing their final seasons for GCU, the Antelopes would be long on leadership and drive. He needed to set the bar high, and he wanted a slogan that would remind the players of it. He also focused on 2 Timothy 1:7: “For the spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.”
“When I choose a theme and verse,” May says, “I spend a lot of time thinking about it. It identifies your team for a year. That way, it’s not just another year. I knew the opportunity we had this year. People are gung-ho at the beginning, but the waves get tough and there is rough sailing. You have to adjust your sails on the voyage.
“When you choose a theme, you hope it pays off.”
T-shirts were printed and dog tags made, inscribed with “Burn the Boats” and the 2 Timothy verse. When the Student Recreation Center opened last October as the Antelopes’ new practice facility, May put a bell right by the door of the locker room. The point: You ring the bell before you step onto the practice court, as a sign to all that you’re all in.
Freshman Maylinn Smith, who has emerged as a potent offensive force off the bench for the Antelopes, loved the concept.
“It says, ‘We’re giving everything of ourselves,’” she says. “We really go at it in practice, but it’s all for the sake of the team.”
Fast-forward to Friday’s first-round game in the West Regional against Seattle Pacific University, which had eliminated GCU in the first round only two years ago. In the locker room, May chose to revisit the season’s theme only minutes before the Antelopes took the floor at Kellogg Gym.
“I hope I didn’t mislead you,” he told the team, “but burning the boats begins now. You have to get to the island in order to burn the boats. We’ve landed on the shores, and we know where the treasure is.”
Fired up by their coach and cheered on by more than 100 fans who had made the trip from Phoenix, GCU raced to a 15-point halftime lead and held on to win, 53-51. The Antelopes face California State University at Monterey Bay at 6 p.m. (Arizona time) today in the regional semifinals. If they win, they’ll play Monday night for the regional championship and the right to advance to the Elite Eight in St. Joseph, Mo.
Regardless of how the expedition ends, it has been a dream season for GCU, and senior Kristi Girdley won’t ever forget it. Much of the credit, she says, goes to Murphy, a high-scoring superstar who doesn’t act like one.
“Sam is really humble about what she does,” Girdley says. “That’s a big first step. In our open-gym workouts (before the season), everyone respected everyone else. It’s the best team I’ve played for, by far, at GCU. We love hanging out together, and that’s something I’ll miss the most. You don’t get this anywhere else in life.”
Says Smith: “Our off-court relationships really help us. There hasn’t been one argument or confrontation all year.”
Freshman Jenna Pearson doesn’t want it to end — even if it ends in a national championship.
“At most, we have only five games left,” she says. “To get to this point, we’ve all had to buy in. If we hadn’t, we wouldn’t be here.”
Reach Doug Carroll at 639.8011 or firstname.lastname@example.org.