The Elgin Community College women's basketball team is in the NJCAA Division II national finals for the first time in program history.
But don't think for a minute the 13th-seeded Spartans are simply content to be making the trip Downstate to East Peoria.
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This group on Spartan Drive means business.
"We agree that it is cool we got this far, but just because we are here doesn't mean we're satisfied," said ECC co-captain Gianina Estocado, a sophomore guard and a graduate of Hampshire. "We'd like to win a national title. If we all do our jobs and focus and hustle I think we have a really good shot at it."
ECC (26-6) opens play in the tournament at 1 p.m. Wednesday against No. 4 seed and Port Huron, Mich.-based St. Clair County Community College (30-1) at the ICC CougarPlex. Illinois Central College is the host.
"It's indescribable what we've done," said Estocado, who was named the Region IV tournament MVP after helping the Spartans defeat top-seeded Kishwaukee in the region championship in Oglesby last weekend. "It's amazing to have this opportunity. It's once in a lifetime. We are taking things very seriously."
ECC has won 13 games in a row and has lost only twice since the beginning of the new year. Four of ECC's losses have come by 4 points or less.
Sophomore co-captain Alex Dumoulin (Hampshire) said the team has come a long way from the beginning of the season when it dropped its first two games at a tournament at John A. Logan College in Downstate Carterville.
"This means a lot, especially when we started the season 0-2," she said. "To come to where we are right now is a true testament to how hard everybody on the team works. We had a little hiccup at the beginning of the season and then we were able to go on a run. We figured out the strengths and the weaknesses of everybody and then we figured out where we wanted to go from there."
Dumoulin, one of only two players in the history of ECC's women's program to score 1,000 career points (her sister Cassie is the other), may look like the Spartans' main scoring option with her lofty 19.0 points-per-game average (16th in the nation in scoring) and recent NJCAA Division II all-American nomination on file. That's not the case.
"It's a team effort around here," Dumoulin said. "I'm part of the mix, I guess. Everybody contributes in their own special way. We never rely on one person to score or get a defensive stop. Everybody has to do their job to get where we want to be."
Estocado has noticed opposing teams clamping down on Dumoulin more often of late.
"A lot of teams have caught on pretty well that Alex is our big scorer," she said. "We know we all need to step up when teams are trying to shut down Alex or Carly (Saraceno). We know we can do that and we've been doing a good job at it."
Dumoulin noted the team aspect has come into particular focus when the team has found itself down in games.
"When we get behind in games it's only usually five or six points, but each time someone different steps up," she said. "We're able to come back every time and persevere through the other teams' runs. We need to keep doing that."
ECC has been especially effective on the defensive end of late. The Spartans rank 15th in the country in points allowed per game at 42.3. They held nationally ranked Kishwaukee to 47 points in the region final. Kishwaukee averaged 67.3 points per game this season.
"Our defense has gotten much more aggressive," said Estocado. "We're helping out on defense and our rotations are better. We know what our strengths are and we're hitting our stride when we need to."
In addition to Dumoulin's 19.0 points and 11.5 rebounds per game, Saraceno, a Downers Grove South graduate, averages 14.5 points and ranks ninth in the nation with 71 three-pointers made. Estocado averages 8.3 points (3.0 steals), while Dumoulin's freshman sister, Michelle, averages 7.6 points and 6.0 rebounds. Dundee-Crown graduate Megan Fasanella averages 5.8 points and 4.0 rebounds.
Alex Dumoulin and Saraceno joined Estocado on the Region IV all-tournament team. Dumoulin was recently named 2013 Illinois Skyway Intercollegiate Conference player of the year.
Alex Dumoulin added another major piece to ECC's success puzzle has been the play of its bench. That bench group includes: freshman forwards Sarah Nelson (Burlington Central, 3.7 ppg) and Alexa Diaz (Bartlett, 3.4 ppg), sophomore center Kayla Pflueger (Larkin, 1.6 ppg), freshman center Jennifer Chesney (Jacobs), sophomore guard Carol Garcia (Larkin) and freshman guard Mariah Ortega (Lisle).
"Our bench does a phenomenal job," said Dumoulin. "They are always up and cheering even though some of the girls don't play a lot. They are always positive. They help glue this team together. They make us play even harder."
ECC also has been particularly effective from the foul line of late. In their last 5 games, the Spartans have shot 19-for-25 (Kishwaukee), 11-for-17 (IVC), 8-for-10 (Blackhawk East), 22-for-30 (Lake County) and 13-for-16 (Morton) -- for a 74.5 clip during that span.
ECC will encounter a St. Clair team that is making its second trip in a row to the national tournament. St. Clair has won 15 games in a row and ranks eighth in the nation in points per game (76.6). The Skippers also rank fourth in field goals made per game (30.4) and seventh in field goals attempted (73.0). The team is ninth in the national in total rebounds per game (54.6) and 12th in opponent's field-goal percentage (.326).
"This is an atypical team we'll be facing. They play 10-12 players a game and have pretty balanced scoring," said ECC coach Jerry McLaughlin. "We have to go out there and concentrate on what we do best and what got us to this point and that's playing team basketball and playing with heart. It's simplistic but it's what has gotten us here.
"Our girls are competitors and have a lot of confidence going into next week. The really cool thing here is it's mid-March and we're playing for the national championship and that's a compliment to everybody here at ECC from Kent Payne (ECC Athletic Director) to Bonnie Coffin (ECC Athletic Administrative Assistant) to Dr. (David) Sam (ECC President) to our trainer, Beth Schwarz. We're going to go down there and do our best to represent ECC and this community."
McLaughlin especially tipped his hat to Coffin for the work she has done in assisting the team over the years.
"What she has done for our program is immeasurable with the amount of loyalty she has shown," said McLaughlin. "Bonnie's our unsung hero and the MVP of the ECC athletic department."
The NJCAA Division II tournament runs through next Saturday and features a double-elimination format. If ECC wins its first game, it will play Thursday at 8 p.m. against the winner of No. 5 seed and Benton Harbor, Mich.-based Lake Michigan College (25-6) vs. No. 12 seed and South Holland-based South Suburban (21-12).
If ECC loses on Wednesday, it goes into the consolation bracket and plays Thursday at 1 p.m. against the Lake Michigan-South Suburban loser.
Mesa (Ariz.) Community College (24-6) is the top seed.