Crowd, community support helping Smith College basketball along historic run
|Published: 03-09-2023 8:44 PM
Miranda Oakes stood in the Smith College student section, notebook in hand. St. John Fisher guard Katie Moravec stepped to the free throw line late in the third quarter of last weekend’s NCAA Division 3 tournament second round game.
“One fish! Two fish!” Oakes yelled, as few fellow fans around her joined for the second chant.
“Red fish! Blue fish!” she continued. It was silly, but her peers grasped the idea
“If you’re feeling silly you’re doing it right,” Smith sophomore Abby Sweeney said. She and Oakes both play on Smith’s volleyball team.
“One fish!” Oakes persisted. “Two fish!” the rest of the crowd roared.
“Red fish!” Oakes began.
Moravec missed her first attempt, which only spurred the Smith students further. They continued the Dr. Seuss refrain during her second foul shot. It rattled home but nearly jumped out.
Oakes shrugged and sat, her and the Ainsworth Gymnasium faithful’s impact felt in a narrow win that sent the Pioneers to their third straight Sweet 16.
“It’s great they give us love, but we get home games because we want to poke at the other team a little bit,” Smith guard Jesse Ruffner said. “That’s real home court advantage, when you can get underneath the other team’s skin a little bit.”
Few teams have enjoyed a home court advantage quite like Smith the past three seasons (over four years after the Pioneers did not participate in 2020-21). The Pioneers are 46-1 inside Ainsworth Gymnasium over that stretch. They’ve won 36 games in a row at home ahead of Friday’s Sweet 16 matchup against Mary Washington (8:30 p.m.).
“This is a place we feel really comfortable battling teams. We’ve had a lot of big wins, there are a lot of really big moments on that court,” Smith coach Lynn Hersey said. “The consistency of us being able to pull out those games is the beauty and the magic of it all.”
The support followed the success initially. Smith (28-1), the No. 1 overall seed on a 22-game winning streak overall, has won the last three NEWMAC championships and been to the NCAA Tournament four times in a row.
“They probably have the biggest home court advantage in Division III,” Sweeney said. “You would never expect a historical women’s college to have that kind of environment."
Other Smith athletes compose a measurable percentage of the crowd. They wear shirts representing their own teams and support their fellow Pioneers.
“Our athletics community is pretty close knit. A lot of my best friends are not only on my team but on the other teams, too,” Smith senior soccer player Noemi Howland said. “I want to go out to as many of my friends’ games as I can. I want to support them through their successes, and I want to be there for their successes and their losses.”
Attending basketball games has become part of the Smith social calendar. People Ruffner barely knows in class ask her who the team is playing.
“It’s starting to become a bridge between athletes and non athletes at Smith,” Ruffner said.
The culture surprised Smith soccer forward Parker Ellis, a sophomore from Chicago. She considered not playing soccer and attending other, larger universities that had thriving basketball and football support. Ellis never thought she’d find the same level of sporting culture at Smith.
“I wasn’t expecting a small, historically women’s college to go that hard for sports,” Ellis said.
The crowd also includes Smith faculty, players’ families and members of the surrounding Northampton and Pioneer Valley communities.
“That’s a testament to our players and their character off the court. The friendships, the rapport they have with their faculty and how they carry themselves,” Hersey said.
Hersey and the Pioneers view their success as the community’s as much as their own. They embrace everyone that has supported them.
“Fans that have been following us all year are a part of this with us,” Hersey said. “We want to wrap our arms around everybody who’s stepped up for us in a lot of different ways.”