In the dead of winter and nearly 1600 miles away from home, the Montclair State women’s basketball team was surrounded by Caribbean waters and were far removed from New Jersey suburbia. They came for the San Juan Shootout, a two-day tournament in Puerto Rico. The games counted, but Puerto Rico’s tropical atmosphere was not at all lost on the Red Hawks: they went banana boating.
“And Sage [Bennett] actually fell off the banana boat – and we couldn’t tell if she was crying or laughing,” senior guard Rachel Krauss said. “Kate [Tobie] jumped in to get her too. And Dom [Wirsing] was gushing blood from her nose. I think that was one of our best times.”
Now, after four years, 104 wins and trips across the continent, seniors Rachel Krauss, Zoe Curtis, Sage Bennett and Erica Snow are about to play in their final postseason as their careers come to an end.
Bennett, Curtis, Krauss and Snow are what Head Coach Karin Harvey likes to call the “glue players” of the program. But before the banana boats, holiday trips and NCAA Tournament runs, the current crop of seniors came to Montclair State as role players.
Getting to Know Each Other
Out of the four seniors, Curtis and Krauss were slightly more familiar with each other compared to the other two. They played high school basketball against each other and hail from towns and short drive away from the Jersey Shore. Bennett joined Curtis and Krauss to round out the 2013-14 freshmen class, and Snow joined the trio a year later.
Bennett, Curtis, Krauss and Snow were quieter in their first year on campus but now, along with the rest of the players on the team, they are nearly inseparable. They crack jokes together on the bench, can be seen eating together from time to time at the Rat, and they’re at the point where Krauss says they “basically know everything about each other.”
“Oh, it’s been great,” Bennett said with a smile about spending the past four years together. “And the girls, you never know the personalities, but everything was such a good gel fit. It’s like, we’ve become so close since freshman year. We’ve been through so many things and we all started playing around the same time too.”
The Montclair State women’s basketball team had just made the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 the year before Bennett, Curtis and Krauss came in as freshmen. All three said they knew how good the Red Hawks were, but none of them said they could have imagined the run they were about to go on.
Bennett, Curtis and Krauss started their freshman year coming off the bench, learning from Janitza Aquino and soon-to-be NCAA All-American Melissa Tobie. Bennett and Curtis would watch from the bench and Krauss watched from the court as Aquino nailed a three from the corner that lifted the women’s basketball team to its second consecutive NJAC title.
Montclair State ultimately fell one game short of the Final Four in a loss to Fairleigh Dickson (Florham). But Bennett, Curtis and Krauss, along with Aquino and Tobie, were back the next year and the team had one goal: a Final Four run. This time, they had Snow plus a talented group of freshmen to help get them there.
“I never imagined I’d be going to the Final Four my freshman year,” Snow said.
Bennett started every game that season, while Curtis and Krauss still were contributing off the bench. Snow played just over five minutes a game that year, and the Red Hawks blazed through the regular season and earned their third consecutive NJAC title.
After defeating their opponents in the first four rounds of the NCAA Tournament by an average of 17 points per game, the women’s basketball team was finally there. They made the NCAA Division III Final Four.
But, there was one thing that prevented the team from reaching Grand Rapids, Mi., the site of the Final Four. Their flight was delayed.
“We were just sitting around, and all of the sudden, Janitza [Aquino] started like beatboxing and everyone else started going along with it,” Curtis said. “And we were sitting in a circle, just everyone was beatboxing. We just started making up songs and stuff.”
The women’s basketball team eventually made it to Grand Rapids, and they lost in the Final Four to George Fox University. Still, the Red Hawks came back the next day and defeated Tufts University in the 3rd Place Game. Aquino and Tobie’s careers came to an end, and Bennett, Curtis and Krauss took on the mantle as the team’s upperclassmen.
“Being some of the leaders on the team, I think it’s special,” Curtis said. “It feels good to keep up the legacy that I think all of the graduating past seniors have kept up. And it’s something that’s definitely really special. It means a lot.”
Now, Bennett, Curtis and Krauss were all in the starting lineup to end the 2015-16 season, and Snow contributed with her three-point shooting off the bench. It was their team now, along with Kate Tobie and Katie Sire. And, under pressure, they did something that sent Panzer Athletic Center into utter pandemonium.
The Red Hawks had just relinquished a four-point lead and found themselves trailing by two with 29 seconds left in the NJAC Finals. Krauss nailed a three in the same corner where Aquino hit her game-winning three two years earlier, gave Montclair State a one-point lead and the fans at Panzer erupted in jubilation.
“That’s just a moment that I’ll always remember,” Snow said. “And, jumping up on the bench and just everybody cheering, that was just such a defining moment.”
The Red Hawks ultimately won the NJAC Finals but now, two years later, they did it with Bennett, Curtis and Krauss all on the court together.
The women’s basketball team lost in overtime in the second round of the 2016 NCAA Division III Tournament, and now the four seniors are looking to make one final NCAA Tournament run to close out their careers. With that, though, comes the specter of any NCAA Tournament game could be the last game any of these four seniors play in a Red Hawk uniform.
Coming to an End
Harvey usually keeps the team emotionally level on the bench during rocky moments, but she became teary-eyed when reflecting on the senior’s final few games.
“I love this group,” Harvey said, pushing through a bevy of emotions. “I do. Every group graduates and it’s tough, but this group is something really special in a way that I can’t really articulate. It’s been my pleasure, every day has been great with them.”
Curtis, Krauss and Snow all said they haven’t let the idea that one NCAA Tournament game could be there last, but Bennett said she is starting to come to grips with that reality.
“It’s scary,” Bennett said. “I was just talking to Katie Sire about that last night. Now that the regular season is over and it’s playoff time, it’s not about records, it’s not about rankings, any moment your season can be done. And it kind of hit me last night that it’s for real.”
The seniors’ success and growth on the court has been exponential. Krauss, who came in as a role player, now holds the Montclair State women’s basketball record for most career threes. Harvey contends Bennett has become the best post player in the NJAC. Curtis is the definition of grit and grind and she’s the swiss-army knife of basketball players, and Snow solidifies the team’s depth off the bench.
On-the-court success is one thing, though, and Harvey said one of the most rewarding aspects of coaching this group of seniors is seeing their development as people and getting to know them.
“Even today, three of them came into my office and just sat and laughed for a half hour,” Harvey said. “I think just getting the chance to know them, like that’s the really fun part. They love the trips, for me it’s an opportunity to get to know them as people and have some really fun times with them that I wouldn’t have – they get to see me as a person, they get to see me not worried about basketball. I really get to know them and share their life a little bit, and that’s really rewarding.”
And now, with one NJAC and NCAA tournament left, Bennett, Curtis, Krauss and Snow’s time as Red Hawks is almost over.
““I’m going to miss it,” Krauss said. Without pause, Curtis said, “Me too.”