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Smith College basketball off to historic start

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  • Elle Jo Whalen, right, of Smith College, tries for a rebound against Kristin Hamill, of Franklin & Marshall, Dec. 30 during the Smith Holiday Tournament at Smith College. The Pioneers are off to the best start in program history at 12-0. They visit Springfield on Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Elle Jo Whalen, left, of Smith College, shoots against Kristin Hamill, of Franklin & Marshall, Monday, Dec. 30, 2019 at Smith College. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Katelyn Pickunka, center, of Smith College, shoots between Franklin & Marshall defenders Kenna Williams, left, and Emily Moran, Monday, Dec. 30, 2019, during the Smith Holiday Tournament at Smith College. Pickunka, now a sophomore, played for Hampshire Regional High School. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Dashelle Gleissner, front, of Smith College, drives past Maia Lockhart, of Franklin & Marshall, Monday, Dec. 30, 2019, during the Smith Holiday Tournament at Smith College. Katelyn Pickunka is in the background. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Jessie Ruffner, left, of Smith College, drives to the basket against Sarosha Parsons, of Franklin & Marshall, Monday, Dec. 30, 2019, during the Smith Holiday Tournament at Smith College. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Amelia Clairmont, left, of Smith College, drives to the basket against Emily Moran, of Franklin & Marshall, Dec. 30. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 1/6/2020 6:23:57 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The Smith College basketball team lights a disco ball in the locker room before the Pioneers take the floor. Sophomore Katelyn Pickunka, a Hampshire Regional graduate, and first-years Elle Povtin and Jesse Ruffner select a song or two before every home game at Ainsworth Gymnasium, and the team hosts a five-minute dance party once the coaches leave.

“We’re a big dancing team, everybody loves to dance for the most part,” junior captain Elle Jo Whalen said.

The Pioneers spend a lot of time together whether that’s on the court or off it. They’ve built friendships and chemistry that has translated to the best start in program history. Smith is 12-0 ahead of Tuesday’s NEWMAC opener against Springfield at 1 p.m. at Blake Arena.

“We didn’t expect it to go this way,” Whalen said. “We came in with the mindset like ‘we’re a young team, we don’t really know what to expect.’”

Smith has eight rookies on its roster along with three sophomores and two juniors. The Pioneers reached the NCAA Tournament for only the second time in program history last season. They fell to Bowdoin, the country’s No. 1 team at the time, in the second round then graduated seven seniors, including All-American Lauren Bondi and 1,000-point, 1,000-rebound player Kennedy Guest-Pritchett.

“At the end of last year, I did not see this coming. I was hoping for the best, expecting the worst,” said Pickunka, a Westhampton native. “When we got back to campus in September and started playing together, we could see the on-court and off-court chemistry pretty quickly. By our first scrimmage against Western New England I knew that this team was something special. ”

The Pioneers boast the 19th-ranked scoring defense in Division III at 51.2 points per game. They hold opponents to 31.9 percent shooting despite five of their top eight minutes leaders graduating high school last spring.

“I wouldn’t say I predicted this, but I’ve been really impressed with some of the ways this team has come together and the belief they have in one another and the work ethic they’ve displayed,” Smith coach Lynn Hersey said. “It’s not something you plan on long term, it’s something that happens game after game when you do certain details on a daily basis.”

In addition to the smooth integration of a large incoming class, the improvement of its returners bolstered Smith’s progress. Three players who appeared in both games of last year’s NCAA Tournament run returned: Pickunka, Whalen and Dashelle Gleissner. Pickunka developed from a bench player averaging 6.7 points and 3.4 rebounds per game to one of the top players in the NEWMAC.

She leads the conference in scoring (17.7 points per game) and shooting percentage (65.6). Pickunka has swept the NEWMAC Offensive and Defensive Athlete of the Week awards twice. She was also named the New England Women’s Basketball Association Player of the Week both of those times and the U.S. Basketball Writers Association Player of the Week on Nov. 26.

“It’s one thing to be good individually, and she’s done that, of course, but it’s another thing to be a competitor and be good and be infections to the entire group,” Hersey said. “We’re really proud of her effort and her competitiveness and her ability to bring a tough mentality to her program daily.”

Smith’s unbeaten run eclipsed the previous best start in program history – the 1995-96 season that began 7-0 – when the Pioneers beat Westfield State 97-70 at home in the eighth game of the season. But conference play is different.

“The NEWMAC games have been some of our best games,” Whalen said. “Yeah, we do want to get back to the NCAA tournament, but we want a banner, we want a NEWMAC championship first. That’s what we’re fighting for first.”

The undefeated streak likely won’t last all season. Both Hersey and the Pioneers recognize how difficult that is, especially with so many young players. But what matters to the coaching staff is how Smith approaches its preparation, game planning and adjustments.

“The big thing is for us is to have the standard of play that we know we’re capable of and every single day try to meet that standard as close as we can,” Hersey said. “The pregame practices that we have before the game are really where we win the game so that’s an emphasis we’ve put on the season so far.”

The off-court chemistry will remain the same. The Pioneers will still joke with each other and make sure to wear the same outfits on game days. They’ll update the team account with fresh videos for TikTok Tuesdays and simultaneously celebrate their teammates having good days and pick up the ones having bad days.

“I’m excited to showcase what this team can do, especially in conference play. That’s when it really gets into it, the games you really battle for,” Pickunka said. “I’m excited to see everything we can do and show everyone this isn’t a rebuilding year for us.”

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @kylegrbwsk.

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