Alana Gilmer is not happy. The highly touted Virginia Tech freshman from suburban Boston has not enjoyed her rookie season. Gilmer enjoyed an illustrious career at her high school, Archbishop Williams. She racked up 1,458 career points and scored 18 points per game in her senior year, which culminated in a state title. It has been a tough transition for the 15th-ranked wing prospect in last year’s recruiting class. In less than a year, Gilmer has gone from the shining star to an afterthought who only scored one point per game in her freshman season. She is looking for a new place to take her talents, one that feels like home.
840 miles west, in Springfield, Missouri, Grace Vander Weide is finishing her freshman year in much better spirits. The highest-ranked recruit from the state of Iowa is heading to the Big Dance. Her team, Missouri State, has just won the Missouri Valley Conference and has a date with Texas A&M in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Vander Weide has played a small but consistent supporting role, seeing action in 25 games in her rookie season. She scored four points in a chance encounter against Marist as her team rolled to a 77-45 victory. Vander Weide is simply paying her dues as a freshman. An offseason of practice and familiarizing herself with the system should help her earn a bigger role in year two.
455 miles southwest, in Argyle, Texas, a pair of twin sisters are putting the finishing touches on tremendous high school careers. Hannah and Rebekah Hand verbally committed to Marist last spring and made their decisions official on National Signing Day in the fall. The seniors, who garnered nearly identical honors and recognition, finish with a flourish as they bring Liberty Christian High School a state title. At the end of the summer, they will head to a little-known, scenic northeastern school in search of even more glory.
967 miles north in Shorewood, Minnesota, Molly Smith also signs the dotted line to play at Marist. The standout senior, who also excels at tennis, will surpass 1,000 career points in her final season at Holy Family Catholic High School. Smith is also a standout student who maintains a 4.0 GPA. She’s the perfect addition to what hopes to be a historic class.
1,242 miles northeast and at least a day’s drive away sits the picturesque school and campus that has built a reputation for liberal arts and women’s basketball. It’s the meeting place for these five individuals, one where together, they can chase their dream of succeeding at the highest level.
Time for Change
Alana Gilmer has had enough. The Virginia Tech freshman is ready to kiss the ACC goodbye. The time spent on the end of the bench and the lack of encouragement from the coaching staff despite her hard work in practice has her ready for change.
“It was a hard transition from high school where you get more attention and more minutes,” said Gilmer. “There were also some issues with the coaching staff who got fired at the end of the season.”
Many mid-major schools have room for a highly-touted, disillusioned power conference player like Gilmer. There is only one that stands out to her.
“The success and the atmosphere at Marist really sold me on the program. Those were both huge aspects, seeing the way the people here cared about women’s basketball was the deciding factor.”
On June 20, it becomes official. Alana Gilmer is now a member of one of the most successful mid-major programs in the country. It’s a program that has fallen on relatively hard times of late. It will fall to her and her teammates to bring it back to its former glory.
Grace Vander Weide is in a different position at Missouri State. She fully expects to play her sophomore season in Springfield after setting the foundations for a solid career in year one. Like so many times in life, expectations won’t match reality.
Reality comes crashing in with a devastating right hook, halting Vander Weide’s basketball career. Just after midnight on August 26, she is pulled over and arrested for driving while intoxicated. God, she wishes she could take it back; it leads to an indefinite suspension, one that is announced on the second anniversary of her signing with the Bears.
“It was the most stressful time in my life,” said Vander Weide. “I learned a lot of things on and off the court. It was a really tough situation that I needed to put behind me.”
Faith is a key component of Vander Weide’s life. At this low point, many lesser mortals would have questioned their beliefs. Grace Vander Weide is no lesser mortal. The devout Christian, who had been on six mission trips to Africa, transfers to Marist in the middle of the 2016-17 season.
“When I came on my visit, I was instantly sold just by how the girls interacted. It was a community unlike what I experienced at Missouri State,” said Vander Weide. “When I got on to campus the other four girls lived in a different building than me but they all helped me move my things in and it really clicked right away. I knew we were going to be best friends from the first time that we hung out.”
636 days pass between her last game with Missouri State and her first outing in Poughkeepsie.
The Hand sisters and Molly Smith are struggling through a rebuilding season. They narrowly avoid a second consecutive 0-7 start, losing their first six games instead. With Smith redshirting and star guard Allie Clement out for the season due to injury, a disproportionate amount of responsibility falls on the shoulders of Hannah and Rebekah Hand. Both twins established themselves as scoring options during the initial six-game losing streak. Rebekah exploded for 53 points in the first two wins of the season over North Carolina A&T and Manhattan.
Like the previous season, things begin to even out by the time conference play rolls around. Despite a turnaround from the abysmal start, the Red Foxes are a middling team in the MAAC, finishing sixth in the conference. Marist was limited by depth issues throughout the entire year. Head Coach Brian Giorgis could only put forth a seven-player rotation once Molly Smith had season-ending back surgery in late January.
A 31-point performance from Rebekah Hand in the opening round of the MAAC Tournament helps Marist keep the season alive and provides fans a glimpse of how the future might look. But all hopes of a Cinderella run are dashed in a 61-44 loss two days later as the Red Foxes watch their season end at the hands of Fairfield.
The final mark of 15-17 meant the first losing season in 14 years. Though the program struggled to meet its high standards on the court, something much more important was transpiring behind closed doors. Gilmer and Vander Weide couldn’t play, but they could practice.
“It was so fun to practice them during the first year that we were here,” said Vander Weide. “Alana and I were on the scout team, mostly going against each other but we didn’t let any competition get in the way of our friendship.”
As freshmen, the Hand sisters both finish near the top of the team in scoring and garner selections to the MAAC All-Rookie team. Rebekah leads the team with nearly 14 points per game and also averages a team-high seven rebounds per game. Hannah Hand finishes fourth on the team, averaging just over 10 points per contest. The severely undermanned Red Foxes would soon find the help they desperately needed as the transfers prepared to enter from the wings.
Heading into 2017-18, there’s a sense of optimism surrounding the program, something that had vanished in the previous seasons. Marist is picked second, behind Quinnipiac, in the preseason poll. The Red Foxes now have the services of Alana Gilmer, who would be joined by Grace Vander Weide before the end of non-conference play.
At 1-7, Marist is off to another slow start. The record is a bit deceiving. Brian Giorgis selected a difficult schedule with many games against power conference opponents and a three-game trip to Hawaii.
Heading into a December clash against Temple, the Red Foxes are holders of a modest two-game winning streak. More importantly, the game marks Grace Vander Weide’s debut in the red and white.
It’s a watershed moment for the group of sophomores. The game in Philadelphia marks the first time the Hands, Gilmer, Smith, and Vander Weide played — actually played — in a real game on the same team for the public to see.
“It was an incredible feeling to have all five of us on the floor together,” said Hannah Hand. “I wasn’t hurt yet… well not really, but we were all playing and that’s what mattered.”
“It was a great experience,” reflected Alana Gilmer, who scored a team-high 24 points against Temple. “It’s incredible to play with your best friends, I don’t know how else to say it.”
The team comes away on the wrong end of an 83-77 decision against Temple, but the game marks a clear turning point in the season. As Vander Weide and Gilmer settled into their eminent roles on the team, a four-game winning streak follows. The transfers play nicely off one another. Vander Weide gives the team another solid option at guard and provides consistency on a night-to-night basis. Many of her assists go to Gilmer, who has the potential to score 25 on any given night thanks to her dominant mid-range game.
“I think we were able to connect during that time of sitting out,” said Vander Weide. “Both of us could relate to what the other was going through.”
The Red Foxes own another four-game winning streak as February approaches. The streak will extend to five after a 75-55 dispatching of Iona, but the team loses something that was much more valuable than a single game.
If you retrace your eyes four paragraphs, you will see the quote that shows Hannah Hand played injured during her sophomore year. The issue dates back to freshman year when she tore her meniscus, which required surgery. Going under the knife did not provide the relief Hand had hoped for.
Hannah is past the midway point of her second season and the pain is just as bad as it has ever been. The five minutes against Iona will be the last action she will see for 645 days. She has another surgery, one that makes things more comfortable but puts the rest of her career in jeopardy. Through it all, Hand’s great attitude and belief in herself prevails.
“My goal was always to come back and be with my friends, my team,” said Hand. “I didn’t want to let the negative feelings of me having to sit out rub off on the people who are playing. That was the mindset I had every day.”
Even without Hannah, the winning streak stretches to nine games before it ends with a gut-wrenching double-overtime loss to Quinnipiac. A 14-4 conference record gives Marist the second seed in the MAAC Tournament. After cruising through the first two games, a familiar foe waits in the finals.
The Bobcats were amid their dynasty in the MAAC and had completed conference play with a perfect 18-0 record. The Red Foxes were the only in the league that even came close to challenging Quinnipiac in the regular season, both games being decided by six points.
Leading by one at halftime, the Marist players believe they can pull off the earth-shattering upset. They fall just short. The Bobcats come back to earn a 67-58 win and go on to win their first-round game in the NCAA Tournament.
“It was a very disappointing loss,” said Rebekah Hand. “We had come a long way from the year before and it was a good learning experience.”
The season ends with a loss in the WNIT to Saint John’s. But the season was much more than just a five-win improvement from the previous year. The seeds that had been planted by three commitments and two transfers began to emerge from the ground, much like flowers at this time of the year. The question: how much higher could they grow?
The 2018-19 season sees Marist keep nearly all of its production from the previous year, with the exception of Hannah Hand. Rebekah Hand and Alana Gilmer established themselves as top scoring threats, with each scoring over 15 points per game last season. Once again slotted to finish second in the preseason, the Red Foxes look to dethrone Quinnipiac from their position atop the MAAC.
The team bucks the trend of slow starts and starts 5-0 out of the gate. The Red Foxes eventually finish the regular season 21-9 and earn the third seed in the MAAC Tournament. And it’s a bit of a frustrating time in conference play. Marist got swept by both Quinnipiac and Rider during the regular season, the only teams to finish higher in the conference and likely squads that they’ll have to face in order to achieve their ultimate goal.
Marist avenges the losses to Rider with a 62-52 win over the Broncs in the semifinals of the MAAC Tournament. Can they do the same to Quinnipiac?
If only this was a storybook.
The Bobcats now are what the Red Foxes hope to be in a year, a group of seniors playing for each other. Quinnipiac soundly thumps Marist 81-51. Despite a 23-win season, the Red Foxes fail to earn a spot in any postseason play because of their third-place finish in the regular season. Will they taste postseason glory next season?
“That one was a tough pill to swallow,” said Grace Vander Weide who had a career-high 25 points in the loss. “I was proud that we kept playing hard but they were just the better team that day.”
I bet you noticed a bit of a sense of urgency to get through the junior season. Looking back, the players felt the same way. They did not want to dwell on another championship loss. Instead, it was all about looking forward. This is their last chance; the championship window is closing. This is their year; the team is chosen as the overwhelming favorite to win the MAAC. After three years together it is clear that there is a greater bond than just playing on the same team.
“We’ve grown so close because we do everything with each other,” said Vander Weide. “We live together, we hang out all the time, and it’s been a really fun experience with these girls.”
“It’s been that way since day one,” stated Alana Gilmer, with Hannah Hand quick to agree.
“It’s more than that,” said Molly Smith. “We’re sisters.”
“They said it all: we’re sisters, best friends, and we love each other.” reflected Rebekah Hand.
From the outset, it’s clear this is going to be a special season. Molly Smith finally sees an increased role and quickly takes advantage, scoring a career-high 12 points in the season-opener against Boston University. The team equals last year’s 5-0 start. This time, success is sustained.
Hannah Hand makes her long-awaited return, scoring seven points and not missing a shot in a win against Albany. A poignant moment for the senior class comes in a road game against Texas Arlington. Arlington sits a mere 45 minutes away from the Hands’ hometown of Argyle. Hannah is inserted into the starting lineup in front of a number of family members and friends. Since junior forward Willow Duffell is sidelined with an injury, Smith also finds herself in the starting lineup. All five seniors start the game together for the first time.
“The game in Texas was so special,” said Smith. “It was a homecoming for Hannah and Rebekah and all of us got to start together, which we hadn’t done before.”
“It’s always special when the five of us are in together,” says Vander Weide, with a smile. “It always seems like Molly is the one to recognize it. She always says 5D because that’s the house that we lived in sophomore. That’s what we call each other.”
The Red Foxes earn a 73-57 win in Arlington and continue to roll through their schedule. Two goals remain: win the MAAC and beat Quinnipiac. The latter is accomplished (twice), as Marist breaks their nine-game losing streak to the Bobcats and come away with the regular-season sweep.
The former remains to be seen.
After an emotional senior night victory over Siena, the Red Foxes will head into the MAAC Tournament 26-4 overall and 18-2 in conference play. They earn a share of the regular-season title with Rider and will enter the tournament as the second seed. Three games are all that separate the senior class from their ultimate goal.
“Everything.” That’s the quick consensus about what the MAAC Championship would mean to the group.
“It would be the sweetest moment,” said Hannah Hand. “All four years would just come together with a win.”
I don’t know what to say. This wasn’t supposed to happen. I did not plan on writing a first-person account of what happened over the last few days. This was going to be the part where Marist celebrated going to the NCAA Tournament or grieved a loss in the MAACs. We would commemorate Rebekah Hand’s surpassing of the 2,000-point total for her career; instead, she will forever be stuck on 1,994. We were going to appreciate the ups and downs in the careers of Grace Vander Weide and Alana Gilmer and how they would get the storybook ending from their time at Marist. We would laud the efforts of Hannah Hand and Molly Smith, both coming back from injuries and working hard in practice. Their efforts were supposed to culminate in an automatic bid to the big dance.
This was supposed to be the happy ending, filled with mushy quotes and anecdotes. Coronavirus had other plans.
As I finished my write-up of Marist’s 68-44 win over Monmouth last Wednesday, I did not allow myself to think that this would be the last game of the season. Honestly, the thought never really crossed my mind. I had plenty of other things on my mind: there were midterms to study for, a plan to meet friends in the dining hall for dinner, and a lecture I would be attending shortly after. It never occurred to me that I had just seen the last game in the collegiate careers of Alana Gilmer, Grace Vander Weide, Molly Smith, and Rebekah and Hannah Hand.
Wednesday was a surreal experience as I watched news of extended spring break and a possible move to online classes grip the campus. I have to admit: I wasn’t too concerned. The only thing I was worried about were my travel plans to Atlantic City, where I would be watching the final of the MAAC Tournament.
Pretty naive, right?
As I strode past the library in the midweek twilight, the sporting world was still in decent shape. The NCAA had announced limited attendance for the men’s and women’s tournaments but the games were still to be played. “Wow,” I said to myself. “How much worse can this thing get?”
By this time tomorrow, everything had devolved into sheer chaos.
It is 12:30 on Thursday afternoon. I’m sitting in my stats class. The professor drones on for 75 minutes. If you ask me about what the lecture covered, I would not be able to tell you. I was more concerned with the incessant alerts about the cancellations of postseason tournaments in the power conferences. The MAAC is one of the last holdouts. In a matter of hours, it’s all over. The MAAC has canceled their conference tournament, ending Marist’s season and crushing the dreams of the senior class. Shortly after, the NCAA cancels its basketball tournaments.
I started thinking about the seniors that night. I’m a freshman, lucky enough to have covered nearly all of Marist’s games this season. I don’t know the seniors like some of our older writers. I can say that these girls were some of the nicest people I ever had the good fortune to work around. They were always smiling, outgoing, always willing to provide a great soundbite. They are a testament to how sports can bring people so close together. There is no doubt they would have unified the Marist community to even greater levels if they had been given the chance to go to the NCAA Tournament. It’s over now.
But I have a feeling they’ll be back for a ceremony next year. Back, primed for fans to give them a proper reception.
Edited by Will Bjarnar and Dan Statile
Header photo by Mike Cahill