Leathernecks worked way up to third ahead of difficult stretch
Four new starters, losing five of their top seven in minutes played last season and a lot of question marks made the Western Illinois women the mystery team of the Summit League.
A slow start during the nonconference and first few games of conference play had people wondering if the Leathernecks were in full rebuild mode, but after losing three of their first four in conference play, WIU has been on a tear, winning seven of their last eight games, vaulting themselves to an outright third-place showing in conference player with three weeks left.
“It’s crazy to think where we were and how a long a process it’s been to get to this point,” WIU coach JD Gravina said. “We’ve talked about turning points, but the truth of the matter is, it’s been a long, uphill climb for this team.”
The low point of the Summit schedule may have been the only blip on the radar in the conference, as a loss at North Dakota State appears to have righted the Leatherneck ship.
“All of conference play, I’ve been happy with us, the game at North Dakota State we didn’t play well, but other than that, we’ve played well the whole time, especially with the way the schedule has worked out.”
WIU has been benefactors of being the right team at the right time in Summit play. Western has avoided four of the top five teams in the conference for most of their hot play, but as the final four games approach, the Leathernecks face their toughest conference schedule stretch.
Western Illinois hosts nationally-ranked South Dakota (tied for first in the Summit) on Saturday and Oral Roberts (tied for fifth) next Saturday before ending with road trips at Denver (fourth place) and South Dakota State (tied for first).
“We have a really tough last four games against the top four of the league,” Gravina said. “The way the season worked out, we were able to win a bunch of games in a row to give us some confidence so hopefully we can make a run at the top.”
While catching the South Dakota schools is largely unlikely, Gravina and the Leathernecks accomplished a pair of goals when it comes to the Summit: qualifying for the tournament and avoiding both the Jacks and Coyotes on the opening day.
Finishing higher than seventh may not sound like a major accomplishment, but from where WIU came, the fete is big.
“It’s crazy, I looked at my whiteboard today and we had the breakdown of where the conference was either right before league play or a few games in and us, North Dakota State and Fort Wayne were at the bottom,” Gravina said. “Then I think it was Omaha and North Dakota, then in the second tier it was Denver and Oral Roberts, then the two South Dakota schools.
“It’s cray to think where we were and to think being where we are now would be realistic.”
The Leathernecks have qualified for a postseason tournament each of the last three seasons, and while that goal is always there, at the beginning of the season Gravina wanted to keep his team’s goals on the day-to-day and not to get caught looking too far in the future.
But if Western can somehow finish the Summit regular season third and push their current 12-13 record over .500, there remains a strong chance WIU can keep its postseason streak alive, something that also seemed unrealistic a month ago. But the coach still remains on an even keel as the team continues to play its best ball.
“It’s hard to feel like you had a successful season if you’re constantly updating your goals to what could be possible,” he said. “If before the conference season you told me we would finish 8-8, I’d be thrilled to death, but here we are at 8-4 with the hardest portion of our schedule left, so if we lost all four, would we feel good or not? It’s hard to adjust what your goals are, but if we could find a way to win another game or two and finish third, I think that’d be a really good conference season.
“We don’t want to keep looking to the next milestone or upgrade our goals to something we’ll never reach, but if we could somehow finish third, that’d be quite the fete.”