By Matt Leon
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – When the preseason women’s basketball predictions came out in the Centennial Conference, few people gave Division III Swarthmore College much of a chance to do anything this season. The Garnet were picked to finish ninth in the eleven-team conference, coming off a 9-15 season in 2011-12.
However, this Swarthmore team is proving the experts wrong. They finished the regular season with a 19-6 record and for the first time since the 2004-05 campaign, they are headed to the Centennial Conference playoffs. They will be the #2 seed and open against Muhlenberg in the semifinals on Friday.
Swarthmore hit the ground running, racing out to a 7-0 start and head coach Renee DeVarney says it was during that season-opening streak that she started to really think this group had “it”.
“Probably it was the fourth game of the season,” DeVarney tells KYW Newsradio. “We played against one of our arch-rivals Muhlenberg and we hadn’t beaten them in a few years and we just played a phenomenal game (66-56 win on 11/29). I mean we dominated every aspect of it, ended up winning there for the first time in many years. After that, I just knew, ‘Alright, we’ve got something special here.'”
That ninth place prediction served as motivation for sophomore forward Elle Larsen.
“Absolutely,” Larsen tells KYW Newsradio. “I had expectations for us. You always say you kind of have an idea of where you’d like to go. But with the way we worked this preseason, I knew that ninth was not where we deserved to be and it’s not where we would end up.”
Heading into the post-season, Swarthmore is ranked fourth in the Mid-Atlantic Region. In addition to their 15-5 conference mark, the Garnet have a couple of impressive non-league wins under their belt over Cabrini and Widener – two teams that are a combined 43-7.
“We have a group of great athletes,” DeVarney says. “We’re good shooters and we’ve been relatively injury-free for the majority of the year. So those three things, along with out up-tempo style of play, have really made a big difference.”
Junior guard Katie Lytle is leading the way for the Garnet . A native of Harrisburg, Lytle does it all for Swarthmore. She paces the team in scoring at 15 points a game and she is also tops in rebounding, pulling down 12.2 caroms a contest. Not bad for someone who measures in at 5’8″ tall.
“I think a lot of rebounding is just having a mindset to when you anticipate a shot going up, and really be aggressive going after the ball,” Lytle tells KYW Newsradio. “I just try to go get it and I don’t know, I guess my 5’8″ size doesn’t limit me too much in that way.”
Lytle has pulled down double-digit rebounds in 20 of Swarthmore’s 26 games.
“Sometimes I’m surprised when I look and see if I had like 15 or 17 rebounds,” Lytle says. “It just doesn’t seem like I had that many. But when you’re out there just kind of giving your all and just having fun while your playing, those numbers seem to just follow at times.”
Lytle also leads the team with 58 steals, 24 blocks and she is second with 48 assists. Her 18 double-doubles this season rank her seventh in the country in all of Division III.
The 5’11” Larsen is second on the team in scoring, pouring in 13 points a game and she has turned it up down the stretch. She is averaging 21 points over the last four games and enjoying the ride.
“It’s been amazing,” Larsen says. “I don’t have really words to describe how much fun we’re having. But it’s been a dream season and I can’t wait to continue what we’ve got going here.”
Swarthmore is vying for its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2001. Their semifinal match-up with Muhlenberg on Friday will tip-off at Gettysburg College at 8:00pm.
You can follow Matt on Twitter @mattleonkyw.