By Murray Evans
WINONA LAKE, Ind. (March 12, 2013) – Oklahoma Christian has crossed paths with dozens of college basketball programs during coach Stephanie Findley’s 28-year tenure, but Cedarville (Ohio) is not one of them.
That makes OC’s game against the Yellow Jackets in the first round of the National Christian College Athletic Association Championship a bit of a mystery, but Findley says not knowing much about the Lady Eagles’ foe really shouldn’t be a problem, especially the way OC (19-11) is playing right now.
Sixth-seeded OC enters its game at 10:15 a.m. Thursday with third-seeded Cedarville (18-9) at the Orthopaedic Capital Center on a serious roll. The Lady Eagles have won five straight games and 10 of their last 12. During that stretch they’ve snapped the double-digit winning streaks of two opponents – Heartland Conference champion Texas-Permian Basin in the regular-season finale and archrival Southern Nazarene in the NCCAA Central Region title game.
“We are playing good,” Findley said. “We feel like we can play a lot of different ways and handle whatever a team wants to throw at us. We feel like we can play at any tempo. We’ve just got to be ready. We will practice on fine-tuning everything we can.”
Cedarville finished third in the NCAA Division II Great Midwest Athletic Conference, losing in the conference tournament semifinals. Earlier Cedarville beat Grace (Ind.) 80-46 in a one-game playoff to win the NCCAA Midwest Regional title and qualify for the NCCAA Championship. Cedarville and OC had no common opponents this season.
Cedarville is led by junior guard Kayla Jenerette, who averages 15.9 points per game. The Yellow Jackets have four players who average between 7.1 and 9.7 points per game – freshman forward Kayla Linkous, sophomore guard Raegan Ryan, junior forward Deborah Chandler and junior guard Becky Orchard.
Kirk Martin is in his 12th season as Cedarville’s coach. Entering this season, his teams had averaged 26.6 wins per season, winning the NCCAA title in 2008 and finishing as the runner-up last season. Cedarville also has been the NAIA Division II runner-up twice, in 2004 and 2005. Cedarville made eight NAIA Division II tournament appearances before moving up into NCAA Division II.
OC is making its first NCCAA tournament appearance after qualifying for the NAIA Division I tournament 13 times. The Lady Eagles have made a dramatic turnaround this season after struggling to a 9-20 mark in the 2011-12 campaign and they’re one win away from giving Findley her 16th 20-win season.
The Lady Eagles’ strength lies somewhat in their unpredictability. Senior center Katy O’Steen (the Central Region player of the year) and junior forward Roz Hamilton have consistently put up solid numbers, but their primary supporting cast has seemingly changed every game in recent weeks.
Sydney Hill busted out a 29-point performance in the win over UTPB. Aisha Martin provided eight points in four minutes in the second half of a regional semifinal win over McMurry (Texas), providing a boost when the Lady Eagles needed it. In a 73-64 win over Southern Nazarene in the regional title game, Krista Stevens went 7-of-9 from the field and Jasmine Hinton contributed 10 points.
“You never know on a given night who it’s going to be, but somebody is doing it each night,” Findley said.
“Katy has been a very good team leader, leading by example by how she plays. Her personality is all about team and not all about Katy. Everybody is buying into that. Our whole team has that personality. Krista is just glad she’s getting to play. (Kaitlyn Morris) is the same way, since they both were hurt last year. Madison (Middle) is the same way. Roz is a positive personality too. They are happy to be playing and they play hard.”
Those who have been coming to the NCCAA tournament for years say this year’s eight-team field is among the strongest ever, thanks in good part to the influx of former NAIA schools like OC who are making the move into NCAA Division II.
Seven of the eight teams in the field are either full Division II members or in the membership process, including familiar names like Union (Tenn.), Southern Nazarene, California Baptist and Shorter (Ga.). The power-packed field means OC should be challenged throughout the tournament, which will be played out with third-place, fifth-place and seventh-place games, with each team guaranteed three contests.
Just by qualifying, OC is in the national quarterfinals, a place the Lady Eagles reached three times during their NAIA days. That’s not enough for O’Steen, who has set the bar high for her team.
“I am ready to just take it to the next level,” O’Steen said. “I’m ready to go get a national championship. I know that if we can just keep this run going and keep our intensity up, we can bring home a title. I know we can.”