North Central Women’s Basketball Seniors Return, Some for a Fifth Season
A year ago, fifth year seniors Mitrese Smith and Allison Pearson weren’t sure if they’d have the opportunity to play one final year of college basketball. But once they had the green light, there was no question that they wanted to go all in for one more year.
“It was always on the back burner in my mind,” said Smith. “You know, like, I want to come back. I want to do a fifth year. But I didn’t know if it was even an option for me. So I started asking questions early. And it was able to work out. So it was really awesome for me to be able to do that.”
“I guess knowing that this was my last chance to play and I just love it,” Pearson said. “And so I really wanted to take every opportunity I could to play as long as I could. I love the school, I love this team, I love Coach Bax. And so I wanted to play as long as I could.”
“The two super seniors coming back for an extra year after such a rough, you know, two years with COVID here,” said North Central head women’s basketball coach Maggie McCloskey-Bax. “I mean, it was not fun. So to have them come back was super exciting. They bought in. And so having them kind of share that experience with the younger kids when it’s tough to see the light at the end of the tunnel sometimes.”
Finding Silver Linings in a Difficult Season
Unfortunately, the season didn’t provide the storybook ending the seniors would have hoped for. But amidst the struggles, they still found silver linings of success, such as Pearson becoming the 12th player in program history to reach 1,000 career points, and worked to use the time they had to the benefit of their younger teammates and the future of the program.
“This season taught me a lot about patience and growth each day and figuring out how to, you know, get those small victories and see the progress, you know, with the players, with the coaches, with everything going on,” said McCloskey-Bax of a year in which the Cardinals missed out on qualifying for the CCIW conference tournament. “And it was just kind of working on those little things as much as possible because, yeah, I mean, it was definitely a tougher year. But figuring out ways to enjoy the small victories and keep moving forward. “
“I think it’s important also to, like, recognize with fewer girls, it’s easier to build that kind of team connection and team chemistry within the few that we did have,” said senior guard Natalie Stavropoulos of the team’s small roster. “And I mean, I think we could all say that this year was probably one of the best seasons where we all got along so well because it was kind of that few and it was important for me, Mitrese, Allie and even Sydney, like we all took on different leadership roles and I know I I’m not a big vocal leader as much, but when I’m on the court, it’s like, follow me with what I do. Like trying their hardest and I think that as us form being like different types of leaders, it really kind of helped bring us that small group together.”
“No matter what happened, injuries, losing people, whatever, whatever the circumstances were, we just had to have the mindset that next like what’s the next thing?,” Pearson said. “We couldn’t really say we had like a young team or an older team like, like whoever was like whoever we had with us, it was we wanted to set a standard that we can take anything like we’re going to take a punch, we’ll get knocked down, we’re going to get right back up for everyone for the next couple of years.”
“I really wanted to make sure that the underclassmen got that kind of experience and they kind of I left them with a little piece of my knowledge and legacy as I left,” said Smith.
“Don’t be scared. Don’t be fearful of making mistakes because here I am a senior doing it and you only see me now being this big player for you guys,” said Stavropoulos of her message to the team’s younger players, reflecting on her own experience. “But my freshman year, I didn’t play and look at you now and like, you get this opportunity, so take advantage of it because not a lot of freshmen and underclassmen get that.”
“I give the freshmen a lot of credit for coming in and they were playing a lot of minutes right away,” McCloskey-Bax said of guard Grace Kieffer and forward Abby Davidson in particular. “Abby did such a great job early. And, you know, Grace is someone that we just kept trying to build our confidence. And she ended up number two in the conference for three point percentage. Megan Duffy really turned it on towards the end of the year and played a role that, you know, I think she was even surprised about, you know, taking on more of a leadership and taking over at times. So, you know, it’s just fun to see them make those baby steps here and there. And, you know, we’re excited about the future with them.”
Stavropoulos shines as team’s new focal point
Beyond stepping up in a leadership role as part of the senior class, Stavropoulos really stepped up her game this year. Previously most known for being a lock-down defender, Stavropoulos was the team’s leading scorer this season and earned a place on the CCIW All Conference 2nd Team.
“I think for myself it really proved to me I almost had like a kind of regretful moment in that moment of receiving it because I was like, you know, I’ve kind of had this in me all along, and it just took me this long to put myself out there and be confident and comfortable with being on the court,” Stavropoulos said of the honor. “But looking back, I was extremely proud of myself and being able to play with these other girls that make you look good. At the same time, it’s like, I wouldn’t have got easy layups if it weren’t for people getting steals and just small things like appreciating my teammates for that recognition. And I know they were all actually happy for me, which made me feel even better about it.”
“She just understood that she was going to guard and stop the best player on the other team,” said McCloskey-Bax of Stavropoulos’ previous role. “And that was her favorite thing ever. And then I think we started to see her, you know, decision making, her passing, you know, all that kind of came together towards the end of last year. And then this year she just came in ready to go. That growth she made in those four years was just so fun to see because, you know, she was playing the best basketball of her life this year.”
Enjoying every moment toward the end of their basketball careers
The Cardinals were able to end the season relatively positively, playing some of their best basketball all season in their last few games, most notably in a win over Carthage. With the reality of the end of the season and of careers, the team played more relaxed and just tried to enjoy the time they had together on the court.
“I think there came a point when it was really like we had nothing to lose, and the only thing that was going to happen from a game was whether or not we knew we competed as hard as we could and we knew we had as much fun as we could,” Pearson said. “And I think that’s where it all started coming together was when we took the pressure that we put on ourselves and kind of just had fun with it and kind of just really weren’t afraid of losing. We weren’t afraid of making a mistake. We just went out there and gave it all we had.”
“I definitely think that a lot of us were giving our all, especially knowing that that was the last time I was ever going to lace up,” said Smith. “And, you know, me and my mom even talked about it, that I was like diving on the floor for balls and like doing things and just kind of like going out there and just playing fluid and not having any care in the world and, you know, just giving it my all that time.”
The seniors will miss basketball and the team, and the team will certainly miss them. Smith and Pearson were freshmen in McCloskey-Bax’s first season, thus is this year was in some ways the end of a chapter for Cardinals basketball. Those departing hope they’ve done their best not just in recent seasons, but for the future of the team as well.
“I think Mitrese might be the most involved student athlete I’ve ever and probably will ever work with, you know, on campus on the other side of campus,” McCloskey-Bax said of Smith. “She’s and every search committee, every like they ask so much of her which is just an awesome thing to have. So you know Allie has been someone that she’s in the gym, she’s working hard. She’s going to be an incredible coach wherever she goes. And I think that the regular seniors as well, there are people that have just kind of bought in. They’ve been through a lot in these four years. And there’s someone that can kind of understand the ups and downs of basketball and really help with the leadership.”
“I’ve always been this super competitive, aggressive player and even though it’s I find myself like playing basketball outside of outside of North Central, I kind of I miss that, you know you know, your Wheaton rivals and you know, your Wesleyan girls and it’s it’s something that you’re going to miss, like looking forward to that competition and that drive that you have,” reflected Stavropoulos.
“I think I’m definitely going to miss the team as a whole,” said Smith. “You know, seeing the girls every single day. I come into the gym after work today and I see three of the underclassmen, you know, getting shots up and just kind of like preparing for the postseason and getting ready to do lifts and conditioning and stuff like that. And I kind of wish that I was kind of grinding with them and being able to be a part of that again would be like something really special. But yeah, I did get some closure this last season and I think that it’s definitely pushing me and fueling me to my future.”
“I think just like little moments at practice, the little moments in the locker room, just those little stories that I get to remember with like my teammates and my friends and like people I spent the most time with during my college career in any aspect,” said Pearson. “I’m gonna miss coach backs and miss Krissy. I’m going to miss Maggie. I’m going to miss everyone. So yeah, I just I guess the people.”