For seniors Sage Bennett, Zoe Curtis, Rachel Krauss and Erica Snow, their journey is over.
Montclair State’s women’s basketball team was eliminated in the second round of the NCAA DIII Tournament by University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth on Saturday. The Red Hawks dug themselves into an 11-point deficit after the first half, but they clawed back to within two points in the fourth quarter. This Montclair State team usually finds a way to win despite the circumstances but, on Saturday, the Corsairs couldn’t miss and ultimately defeated Montclair State, 71-63.
The Red Hawks couldn’t pull any closer than two points in the fourth quarter, and the result began to feel inevitable. After 107 wins, four consecutive conference championships, a Final four run and trips across the continent, the seniors were playing in the final minutes of their career.
“As the time ticked away a little bit in the last couple minutes, all I was thinking about wasn’t about losing the game, not playing anymore in the NCAA tournament, I was thinking about these guys, and how this was going to be my last couple minutes to coach them,” Head Coach Karin Harvey said after the game, fighting to make it through each sentence. “It’s been my honor and my privilege to have them part of my program. And, they’ve really been the best. They really have.”
The team throws around the hashtag “Red Hawk for Life” for players and members of the program. It’s a slogan that can seem vapid and empty, but it takes on a life of it’s own with the women’s basketball team. It’s how the program is run. The slogan is lived out through off-seasons, practices, games and moments off the court. Westfield State, the team Montclair State defeated in the first round, built their program around threes and a high-octane offense, but the brick and mortar of Montclair State’s program is something different.
“Our culture is different than anyone else’s culture,” Curtis said after the game. “The team that we just played, Westfield State, they go off of threes, they run, jump, they do a whole bunch of stuff. We have faith. We trust each other. I think that’s how we build and how we get stronger.”
“It’s something that can’t really be knocked down,” Curtis added.
The four seniors are Red Hawks for life but now they’ll be in the stands. They aren’t in bad company: Bennett, Curtis, Krauss and Snow will get to join Melissa Tobie and Kayla Ceballos in the bleachers – two players who have been essential in developing the women’s basketball team’s culture. And, on other nights, they will be joined by Janitza Aquino and other alumni who have had an equal share in growing the program.
Before that happens, the seniors will have an opportunity to reflect on the run they’ve had. They won four consecutive conference championships as a group. They made it to the Round of 32 twice in the NCAA DIII Tournament, the Elite 8 once and the Final Four once. Bennett, Curtis, Krauss and Snow established Montclair State as a titan in the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) and turned the Red Hawks into the team everyone wants to knock off.
But, the friendships they formed have somehow outpaced their winning. It’s something the coaches and players mention during every post-game press conference and, while it sounds cliché, it’s hard to argue with them. Along with Bennett, Curtis and Krauss, juniors Kate Tobie and Katie Sire gave Harvey five leaders on the court – in practice and in games. The starters not only learned how to play with each other on the court, but they formed an unparalleled trust factor with Harvey which resulted in the players being an active force with strategy and mid-game adjustments.
They were counted on in that regard in certain spots. Snow was the brains on the bench and helped make halftime adjustments, assumed control of dry-erase board duties and went over strategy. Curtis was the glue that held her teammates together on the floor and during timeouts, not to mention her overall grit and tenacity. Bennett and Krauss, too, acted as Harvey’s pointmen. Harvey used all five of her starters and Snow in practice to go over strategy almost as much as her assistant coaches.
It’s rare for six players to be used and trusted to that extent on any team, but that was just one result of the program’s culture. That level of trust, though, deepened the bonds of the players past any cliché level of friendships as teammates.
“It’s not just basketball when we talk about Red Hawk for life,” Krauss said. “It’s a culture that our team has that I really don’t think any other team can compare to, honestly. Like just everything we have been through together and our relationships with one another. When I graduate, when we all graduate, we know that we can come back and just feel welcomed every single day.”
Bennett added, “it teaches you discipline in things that some teams may not have. I know for a fact that they don’t. It makes you become a better person.”
There wasn’t a cavalcade of tears on behalf of the seniors, but there were red, puffy eyes, and softened voices. But, overcoming the negative emotions was an array of smiles whenever one talked about the rest of the group. That’s how it’s been for four years. There has been down moments and games the team would like to have back. But, somehow, the seniors have found a way to not only win games, but to come out smiling and stronger.
Whatever the seniors lost in defeat, they gained in something else. It might not be something that is tangible in the form of a trophy or banner, but it’s something that retains its luster longer than metal or fabric. They are Red Hawks for life and Bennett, Curtis, Krauss and Snow have their moments in the clear waters of Puerto Rico and the intimate moments in airports to clutch onto long after their careers are over.
“Being a Red Hawk is something only a few people can really experience,” Snow said. “It’s kind of an honor to be a Red Hawk for life. You know that once you join the Montclair State women’s basketball program or the team, you’ll always be a part of that team, no matter if you graduate or anything. And along the lines I’m going to look back and remember the runs that I’ve had with these girls.”
“I just really like them,” Harvey said and, in turn, the seniors all smiled. “We did a lot of great things together and I will always, always remember them.”