No March Madness for Hopkins champs Basketball: The women's team is in the Division III tournament. Again. March Indifference sweeps the bookish campus.

March 14, 1997|By Ken Fuson | Ken Fuson,SUN STAFF

You won't find this team in the office pool. Dick Vitale has never SHOUTED THEIR NAME, BAY-BEE!!! The one time ESPN actually reported their score, the players were so thrilled they taped it.

The state of Maryland's best chance for an NCAA basketball champion is a team so obscure that students on its own campus barely know it exists.

It figures: If you want to cure March Madness, go to Johns Hopkins University for the antidote.

The Hopkins women's basketball team has reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Division III tournament. They have compiled the best record in school history. They have won their first two tournament games. If they win tonight, they will be just three wins away from the national championship.

Try to contain your excitement.

"What have they made?" asks Diana Young, 22, a graduate student. "Well, that sounds good."

Sophomore David Danoff, 19, looks perplexed.

"What's March Madness?" he asks, with no trace of irony. "Is that what's going on now?"

"We really don't follow sports," his friend Peter Kay explains.

Such are the inglorious joys of small-time athletics. On a campus with 3,400 undergraduate and 1,200 graduate students, you may get 200 fans for a home game. There are no signs on campus shouting BLUE JAYS ROCK! While the Maryland, Navy and Coppin State men hog all the big-time NCAA tournament media attention, your own student newspaper appears reluctant to jump on the bandwagon, as this inconclusive headline suggests:

"March Madness?!"

"There's just a lot of people who have no idea -- about anything," says junior guard Angie Arnold. "People are into their own thing here."

What really matters

But here's the beauty of the 1996-97 team, the reason why anyone with even the remotest connection to Johns Hopkins ought to pile on the pep bus (plenty of good seats still available) and cheer the Blue Jays when they take on Western Kentucky State at 8 p.m. tonight in Scranton, Pa.:

They don't care.

They don't care about packed gyms or television cameras or pep rallies or glory. They don't care if the sporting world ignores their accomplishments this season -- a 24-4 record so far, the longest winning streak in school history, and an undefeated regular season in the Centennial Conference.

They don't care if you know about them.

They know.

They play, they say, because they love the sport and care about each other. If you're tired of recruiting scandals and coaching temper-tantrums and players who bolt for the NBA, the Johns Hopkins women have another antidote for you.

"They're psyched," head coach Nancy Blank says. "They're really psyched. We've worked pretty hard to get to this point. The attitude is, we want to go all the way."

In her 11 years at Hopkins, Blank has produced the best-kept secret in the Baltimore sports world. When she started, the Hopkins women never had enjoyed a winning season. This year is the third straight they have advanced to the NCAA Division III tournament.

As far as crowds, Blank figures 200 people a game is pretty good. That's four times more people than attended when she started.

"I've tried to get my players not to get distracted by little things like that," she says. "We're trying to provide an environment where our teams can be successful.

"All that glory and hype and publicity, they're just not significant to the mission that we're on. To me, they're distractions."

At Johns Hopkins, the athletic pecking order is firmly established. Lacrosse is to Hopkins what the Bulls are to Chicago. It's the school's only Division I sport. More people attend a lacrosse scrimmage than go see a school football or basketball game.

"You tell somebody, 'I've got a basketball game tonight,' and they'll say, 'We've got a basketball team?' " says Quinn Kerrigan, a freshman on the men's team.

The men, too, just completed a productive and largely anonymous season, finishing with a record of 19-8, not good enough to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, but they did win the post-season Eastern College Athletic Conference South tourney.

Here for an education

"You're not coming here just to play basketball," Kerrigan says. "You're coming here to get a good education."

The men's and women's teams often travel together and pull for each other, but Kerrigan and his buddies won't be making the road trip to Scranton. They're heading to Florida for spring break. Priorities, you know.

"How are you going to compete with spring break?" asks Julie Anderson, the women team's star forward and the first Hopkins player named to the Kodak Division III All-American team.

"There's nothing we can do," Arnold agrees. "We can't wear banners."

Team members, for the most part, treat their anonymity with good humor and a shrug. Besides, Arnold has other things to worry about -- like a test this week in Transport Phenomena II.

"You take a class with the word 'phenomena' in it, you're asking for it," Anderson teases.

Off the court, the players grab small victories where they can. Arnold describes the conversation she had with an old-timer who told her, "I just want to say I never thought I would willingly come to watch women's basketball, but I do and I enjoy it."

Sure, it would be nice to have a pep rally, and it would be great to see 10,000 people in the stands, and it would be wonderful if Billy Packer mentioned them, but the Hopkins women know that's not going to happen.

You can't even find a women's basketball T-shirt at the campus bookstore. There are three different shirts extolling Blue Jays lacrosse, but none for the women hoopsters. Store manager Paul Lynch says there's not enough space for what he calls a "niche" sport.

But Lynch promises that if the Hopkins women win the Division III title, he'll have a championship shirt printed for them.

You go, girls.

Pub Date: 3/14/97

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