For the second year in a row, the Drake University women’s basketball team was the preseason favorite to win the Missouri Valley Conference, but the Bulldogs have learned that preseason rankings mean nothing. When it comes to the season itself, anything can happen. And they mean anything. Last fall, Drake, a private university in Des Moines, Iowa, entered the season as a team loaded with talented veterans. The Bulldogs were picked to win the MVC largely because they had a preseason All-Conference star, Jill Martin, and four starters returning from a team that finished second in the conference the year before and also boasted a respected recruiting class. Martin was averaging 20 points and eight rebounds a game.
“Last season will always remind me that God can use something as simple as basketball, which has no eternal implications, and use it to teach me about His character.”
– Senior Lindsay Whorton
Fans, players, coaches, media—everyone—thought this team was destined to win. But Circumstance wagged a finger and said, “Not so fast, my friend.” “One of the lessons we learned last year is that it really doesn’t matter where you are picked in the preseason; it’s where you finish,” said Drake Head Coach, Amy Stephens. “We had very high expectations going into last season.”
Then adversity struck. And it struck again and again and again.
Five games into the season, Martin injured her back. She had surgery and was out for the season. In the following game, starting point guard Jordann Plummer, who was averaging 10 points and six assists a game, broke her foot. The Bulldogs went on a seven-game losing streak as they struggled without their two star players. Martin and Plummer had led the team in scoring and rebounding the first five games of the season. Both players were shooting better than 40 percent from three-point range.
But adversity didn’t stop coming. Freshman Monique Jones had heart surgery in November to correct a murmur. Sophomore guard Lauren Dybing returned from Christmas break with bronchitis and missed two games.
“It was crazy,” recalls former assistant coach Micah Parker. “We had one stretch when we had an illness go through our team, and we lost 12 of 13 games. We had one road swing where we actually only had six players travel with us.”
Still, on that road swing, the team of six lost in overtime and in a buzzer beater. But, then the health sniper took down another player. Brandy Dahir, a junior forward, joined the others on the bench after she was diagnosed with mononucleosis shortly before the conference tournament. Dahir had stepped up in the absence of Martin and Plummer and had led the team in scoring (17.1) and rebounding (5.5).
Without Martin, Plummer and Dahir, the Bulldogs limped into the Valley tournament, which they were hosting, with a 10-18 record. On paper, the situation looked dismal. Junior Lindsay Whorton was Drake’s oldest player on the court. She would have to lead the way for youngsters like Dybing and freshman guard Kaniesha Agee.
But in the hearts of the players and coaches, the situation was anything but a lost cause. Their hope was no longer in their own strength and numbers; that had been depleted. Their hope, now, was in the Lord.
“We talked about how through great adversity comes great triumph, and that was what we told the team.”
– Coach Amy Stephens
“At the beginning of the year I came across a passage in Deuteronomy 8 about the way God uses blessing and adversity in our lives,” Whorton said. “I was convinced God was going to do something exciting either on the basketball court or off, and I was looking for it. The passage talked about how to use that adversity to remember the Lord and give glory to Him and be obedient to Him.”
All during that long season as the Bulldogs lost players and games, God was moving among the team. Dave Turnball, Central/Western Iowa FCA area director, had been leading pre-game chapels for the team at the request of Stephens for four years. During the darkest hours of the season, Turnball kept pointing the players toward Christ. Parker, who left the team after last season to concentrate on ministry, shared his faith and kept Sharing the Victory magazines in the locker room for the players to read. Stephens repeatedly reminded her players that adversity was a time to show off—to show folks what they were made of.
“In January, as a staff, we talked about how through great adversity comes great triumph,” Stephens said, “and that was what we told the team. I think that was really powerful for them. We were able to maintain a positive environment despite losing 10 games in a 12-game stretch.”
Turnball said he is still impressed by how well the coaches handled last season and is grateful for their partnership with FCA.
“When Amy Stephens came four years ago, she asked us to do a pre-game chapel,” he said. “We have done one for every home game since. Their coaching staff attends our weekly FCA Coaches Huddle, and two of their players served as Huddle Leaders at our Pella (Iowa) sports camp this past summer. God is really moving at Drake.” And He used last year’s adversity to prove that His power truly is made perfect in weakness…
“The conference tournament was at home, and we were seeded eighth,” Parker began. “We were basically playing without our best players. We were going to have to win four games in four days with seven kids. To do that without the Conference Player of the Year and without our starting point guard looked crazy, but our coaching staff went at it in a unique way. One of our assistant coaches, Todd Voss, said we were like Gideon’s army in the Bible. Coach Stephens told the team they were going to be like Gideon; our team paralleled his story. He had this great army, and then God kept taking some of his men away. That happened repeatedly to us.”
In the book of Judges, God told Gideon He would deliver the Midianites into his hand. But to prove that He, not man, would be responsible for the victory, God dropped Gideon’s army down from 32,000 men to a mere 300.
“Coach Stephens told the team we were going to go out there and be mighty warriors and lay it on the line,” Parker said. “Gideon’s army had to be scared and uncertain, but they trusted their leaders and went and got it done. So that’s what we said we were going to do. “The first game, we beat Wichita State at 7 p.m. The next day we played at noon. We came out and played amazing. We beat Southern Illinois handily. The third game we beat Evansville in a close game by four points. The fourth game we beat Creighton in overtime. Even in that game, though, God wasn’t finished. He basically said, ‘This is about Me, and I’m going to prove it to you.’”
Dybing, who had averaged just 3.2 points a game during the season, averaged 15 in the tournament and was named to the all-tournament team. Jones, who had returned from heart surgery, scored 17 points in the final. Whorton made 15 three-point shots and was named MVP of the tournament.
Dybing fouled out in the waning moments of the final game, and sophomore Kelsey Keizer, who was scoreless in regulation, scored all five of Drake’s points in overtime, including a three-point basket with 55 seconds left that won the game.
The team that had won only 10 games all season won four games in four days to earn the conference title. The title secured a berth in the NCAA Tournament for the Bulldogs. The run ended there, however, as Drake lost to the eventual National Champion Lady Vols of Tennessee, but their unforgettable perseverance had forever won the hearts of their fans.
At the conference tournament, thousands of Drake fans held up signs that said, “Believe.” When Drake lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, thousands of fans from four different teams gave Drake a standing ovation. To thank them, the players stormed the stands, high-fiving and hugging the fans and their band.
“After we won the last game in the conference tournament, I looked into the stands and saw tears streaming down the faces of the fans,” Stephens said. “This wasn’t about winning a game. This was about all we had been through. They knew our story.”
In the end, according to Parker, the players and coaches understood it was God’s story.
“As a team, we really focused on Who we were playing for,” Parker said. “We talked about how there was no need to be ashamed; they needed to trust Him and remember who they were playing for. They really gave God all the glory.” That’s what Whorton will always remember. “Last season will always remind me that God can use something as simple as basketball, which has no eternal implications, and use it to teach me about His character,” she said. “I learned things about God and His character duringthat season that I will never forget. The purpose of all that was for Him to be glorified.”
*For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Photos courtesy of Chris Donahue