Fans, Women’s Team Shared Uncommon Bond

March 15, 2011 / by / 0 Comment

By Doug Carroll
Communications Staff

POMONA, Calif. — On what would be the last day of an unforgettable season, GCU’s fans waited.

They waited for the Antelope women’s basketball team to dig itself out of a hole, confident that the winning magic would follow as it had so many times before. Remember the Dixie State game at home? Hawai’i Pacific on the road? The triple-overtime win over UC-San Diego in Anaheim?

They waited for the star, Samantha Murphy, or the star-in-waiting, Maylinn Smith, or the floor general, Rosalyn Nelson, to make the big play that would conclusively turn the tide Monday night against a very good Cal Poly Pomona team on its home floor.

Finally, they waited outside Kellogg Gym, refusing to board buses back to Phoenix until they’d had one last chance to say goodbye.

The end to a magnificent 29-3 season came by a 68-61 score in the championship game of the NCAA Division II West Regional. And as the Antelopes emerged one by one from their locker room, most of them with tear-streaked faces, there was the sense that everyone — players and fans alike — had been a part of something that will live on.

“Seeing them cry afterward just broke my heart,” said Amanda Hempler, an enrollment counselor at Peoria who had made the trip to Pomona on Friday and again on Monday.

“They were just a great bunch of girls, so humble and gracious. They played for the love of the game.”

Three motor coaches — two for students, one for staff — had brought fans to Monday’s game, hopeful that the Antelopes would build on their exceptionally strong play in Saturday’s 55-35 semifinal victory over California State University at Monterey Bay and earn a berth in next week’s Elite Eight in St. Joseph, Mo.

The occasion was significant enough that the University’s chief executive officer, Brian Mueller, sported a dab of purple paint on one cheek and white paint on the other.

However, the Pomona team, which had received the No. 1 seed in the regional over GCU, proved its mettle time and again on this night. Guard Reyana Colson, chosen as West Region Player of the Year over Murphy, put up 28 points and demonstrated she was every bit as valuable as the Antelopes’ All-America candidate.

After going without a basket for the first six-plus minutes and falling behind 14-2, GCU battled back to make several runs at the hosts but never was able to take the lead.

For the Antelope faithful, the disappointing outcome didn’t diminish five joyful months of watching the team play and getting to know the athletes. Many spoke of a connection between the team and those who sat in the stands.

“They played the game of basketball correctly,” said Bill Yearnd, who coached for 30 years in Michigan and Arizona and now works in GCU’s Office of Institutional Research. “They did what their coaches asked them to do, and then they came out and said, ‘Thank you for coming.’

“There was an unspoken affection between the fans and this team. You don’t see this very often. It’s rare, unique and special.”

Yearnd’s wife, Rose, praised the players for being “so personable and approachable.”

Accounting Professor Cathryn Meegan, who has had players Katie Johnson and Stevie Kamp in classes this year, said the team’s kindness and appreciation won’t be forgotten.

“They give back as much love as we give them,” Meegan said. “It means so much to them that we’re here. You feel like you’re making a difference.”

Tom Mason, the director of lifelong learning in the Center for Learning and Advancement, acknowledged that he’s not much of a basketball fan. Yet nothing could keep him from traveling to southern California to cheer for his former students, Nelson and Kristi Girdley, two of the team’s four seniors.

“I’ve always said, ‘You do the work (in class) and I’ll be there to watch your games,’” Mason said. “I like seeing my students succeed. Everyone likes seeing good people succeed, and that’s what these girls are.”

Reach Doug Carroll at 639.8011 or [email protected].

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