ADA — Joanna Snyder had a good feeling.
As a freshman, the Ohio Northern forward looked around at her freshmen teammates and thought that one day the Polar Bears were destined for big things.
Now, three years later, the ONU women’s basketball team is ranked No. 9 in the nation in Division III.
ONU stands 12-1 and atop the Ohio Athletic Conference standings at 6-0. The Polar Bears entered Wednesday riding an 11-game winning streak.
“This is a great feeling,” Snyder said. “I feel very, very confident. It’s a relaxing feeling. I know I can’t play relaxed or take anything for granted, but it’s nice to know we’ve made it and we just have to keep playing like we’re playing and good things will happen.”
Last Saturday, ONU ran Mount Union out of the King Horn Center 62-45. Last year Mount Union won the OAC regular season and tournament championship, with ONU finishing second in both.
“With the seniors, all four years we’ve been here we’ve never beaten them,” Snyder said. “Now we’ve gotten over this hurdle, so there’s nothing we can’t do.”
The Polar Bears returned the nucleus from last year’s 21-6 team. It was their first 20-win season since the 1988 team went 23-4. That was also the last time the Polar Bear women won the OAC championship.
In fact, over the last 24 years, ONU has had only 11 winning records.
The turnaround started with ONU coach Michele Durand, in her 12th year with the Polar Bears, who is 164-139 and has compiled three straight winning seasons.
However, the year before this year’s seniors arrived ONU finished 9-17.
Enter freshmen Snyder (Fort Recovery), Morgan Dumbaugh (Ada) and point guard Katie Mengos (Miami East), all key starters this year. Seniors Katie Jones and Marissa Clark are in the rotation off the bench.
Three years ago that group meshed in with key veterans Kara Dysert (Ada) and Jeanne Bockey (Delphos St. John’s).
“The key is that coach Durand really goes after quality players,” Snyder said. “(In the last four years), starting with our grade, she really brought in a lot of quality players, which I think is pretty evident. As our team got better, she could be more selective. … Everyone knows that everyone else on this team can be successful, so we’re willing to give it to one another. It goes back to freshmen year, but it was a building process.”
Added Dumbaugh, “We had a really big freshmen group and ONU was going up the hill, and I think we’ve set a good example for the younger classmen and our grade has stuck together. We said, ‘This is Ohio Northern basketball and we have a reputation and we’re here to work.’ We have really good team chemistry, which really benefits us in the big games.”
As freshmen, the group of Dumbaugh, Snyder and Mengos helped the Polar Bears go 16-11. As sophomores, they improved to 17-10, before a 21-6 season last year.
“We’re unselfish and over time it’s been a build of trusting in each other,” Dumbaugh said.
The 5-foot-9 Dumbaugh recently cleared the 1,000-point plateau and now has 1,047 career points. She’s averaging 11.6 points and 3.6 rebounds.
The 5-11 Snyder has 846 career points and is averaging 12.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and is shooting 48 percent from the field.
The 5-6 Mengos is the school’s all-time assist leader with 266 assists. She’s averaging 6.4 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.2 assists. She’s also getting 2.8 steals. Mengos had a career-high 12 rebounds Saturday.
Then there’s 5-11 junior Cenzie Yoder (Celina), who leads the team in scoring (15.1) and rebounding (7.8), while shooting 56 percent from the field. She’s also handing out 3.2 assists.
Freshman guard Brooke Espenscheid (Hilliard Bradley) is getting 6.9 points and 3.5 rebounds off the bench.
“I think the reason we have gotten to this point today is that we’ve worked so hard,” Snyder said. “Everyone on our team, every single player comes in outside of practice and gets extra shots up and over the summer everybody’s playing as many hours as they can. … That’s helped us as a team and we’ve learned to play together as one unit. We’re very unselfish, we’re very motivated and that leads to good things.”
The Polar Bears have a long ride ahead, with 12 OAC games remaining. But after the win over Mount Union, the OAC title is definitely within reach.
“I know it sounds far-fetched, but that’s always been my goal and maybe that’s my personality,” Snyder said. “We set high expectations and we’re hard workers. So, maybe other people didn’t see us this way, but we definitely did.”