Junior college athletics have an inherently transient component to them given the more rapid roster turnover with only freshman and sophomore classes.
Thus, continuity sometimes can be a tricky proposition for teams. That hasn't been the case this season for the Elgin Community College women's basketball team.
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Team chemistry has played a major role in the Spartans having the best season in program history. ECC (25-6) finds itself one win from the NJCAA Division II national tournament.
The No. 3 seed Spartans head to downstate Oglesby Saturday to face top-seeded Kishwaukee in the Region IV Division II District L final at Illinois Valley College. Game time is 2:30 p.m. The winner heads to the Division II national finals in East Peoria starting March 19.
"Our team chemistry has really helped us be successful," said ECC sophomore guard Gianina Estocado, one of the team captains and a graduate of Hampshire. "We got along real well right off the bat. We know each other's strengths when we play basketball. We know when someone is going to drive to the basket and we know each other's favorite spot to shoot the ball."
Spartans' freshman forward Sarah Nelson (Burlington Central) noted the team's cohesiveness was not instant.
"In the beginning of the season, it was kind of difficult," she said. "We didn't really know each other. We've spent so much time together that it got easy real quick. This team has meshed well together. We all have the same goal so it's pretty easy to get things done."
ECC came off a 2011-2012 campaign where it also won 25 games and the Illinois Skyway Collegiate Conference title.
"We went 12-2 in the conference last year and had Cassie (Dumoulin, two-time conference player of the year) and Bridget Dumoulin as co-captains," explained veteran ECC head coach Jerry McLaughlin. "I thought this year that was a realistic goal. I give all the credit to the sophomores and the new kids for gelling together and having good team chemistry. This group figured out a way to hang in there every game whether it's on offense or defense. They are a very coachable group. At the end of last year, Cassie told them the foundation is set for this team and she told the freshmen to step up as sophomores and take things even further. Evidently they listened."
ECC has done a bit more than just hang in there this season. Four of the team's six losses have been by 4 points or less. ECC shared the conference title this year at 13-1 with Prairie State and has lost only twice since the beginning of the new year. ECC rides a 12-game winning streak into Saturday afternoon's tilt.
Sophomore Alex Dumoulin (Hampshire) leads the way for the Spartans, averaging 19.2 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. She shoots 51.8 percent from the field and 83.5 percent from the free-throw line. Downers Grove South product Carly Saraceno (sophomore guard) averages 14.6 points and 2.8 steals per contest, while Dumoulin's younger sister, Michelle, averages 7.6 points and 6.1 rebounds. Estocado averages 8.2 points, 4.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.9 steals. Sophomore guard Megan Fasanella (Dundee-Crown) averages 5.9 points.
According to the NJCAA Division II website, ECC ranks 10th in the country in points allowed (40.5) and is 16th in field-goal shooting percentage (42.2).
"We find ways to win," said McLaughlin. "That's what you are looking for this time of the year. I have total confidence in this team. I believe in them. It's been a group effort. In my 11 years here we never really talk about one individual player. It's about winning and losing as a team. We focus on whether we won or lost as a team and then we go figure it out for the next game. I'm proud of the way these girls have stepped up."
McLaughlin said a key win was the recent regional semifinal victory over Illinois Valley on the road in Oglesby. ECC had lost to IVC by a point at home earlier in the season (ECC's only home loss of the year).
"The girls believed they could go up there and play," he said. "It's a tribute to the kids that they went there and won. They stayed focused and found a way to win."
Alex Dumoulin added another key component to the team's recent success has been an off-the-court factor. Through the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, three ECC sports teams have adopted Huntley youngster Matthew Erickson and his siblings. The 1-year-old Erickson, the son of South Elgin boys' baseball assistant Ben Erickson, is ill with brain cancer.
"Our assistant coach (Scott Cork) saw a clip on HBO about Friends of Jordan where college teams pair up with pediatric brain cancer patients," Dumoulin explained. "He signed up three years ago and got the call in December. Matthew's sister Sophia came into our lives the second part of the season (the men's basketball team adopted Matthew and the baseball team adopted brother, Nolan). The family inspires us to do our best for Matthew. We go out there and play hard for him and his family."
On Saturday, the Spartans will look to make the Ericksons, the college, their fans and themselves proud against a Kishwaukee team that defeated them earlier in the year. Kish downed ECC 63-41 in early December in Malta.
"We didn't play really well against them the first time," said McLaughlin. "We got down early and cut it to three points, but we couldn't come all the way back. It was one of our worst losses of the season. This is a different team now. These sophomores have won 50 games in two years. To be where we are at is real exciting. We have a great opportunity to go out and win on Saturday. The coaching staff, the school and the girls believe they can do it. Now we have to go out and prove it."
Nelson added: "We have to focus and bring our A-game. If everyone works together we can come out with a win. ECC has never been in a position like this before. We're all pretty excited about it. We're focused and even more determined now."
Dumoulin said a game of this magnitude will come down to execution.
"We need good teamwork and we have to box out and push the ball and play good defense," she said. "We have to do all the little things that add up to a win. There is a lot of motivation here. We've thought about being in this situation and now it's come true. We want to continue forward."
And make the greatest season in ECC women's basketball history even greater.