In the Northeast-10 Conference, basketball has always been the premiere sport.
At the Division II level, the NE-10 boasts perennial national contenders year in and year out, and the Merrimack women's basketball team was a part of that success nearly a decade ago.
From 2002-05, the Warriors enjoyed the programs best three-year stretch in the team's 40-year history, one that included the only 30-win campaign in school history in 2003-04, and back-to-back appearances in the NCAA Final Four in 2004 and 2005.
But since that era, Merrimack endured seven consecutive losing seasons, including a 5-21 campaign in 2011-12.
Because of that, not many had pegged the Warriors to form much of a threat in a loaded NE-10 field that included nationally ranked squads such as Bentley and Stonehill, as well as others who would contend at the conference, regional and national level.
That, however, was just fine for Merrimack. With a young roster that included one of the top forwards in the conference in senior Kelli Schatzlein (Tolland, Conn.), one of the league's top sharpshooters in classmate Jaclyn Lyons (Reading, Mass.), as well as a young, energetic backcourt that included sophomore Chloe Rothman (Newton, Mass.) and freshman Ashley Weissmann (Highland, Calif.), the Warriors not only exceeded every preseason prognostication out there, but their efforts culminated in one of the most compelling postseason runs by an underdog in recent conference memory, as well as one of the best stories on campus in 2012-13.
But before the postseason even began, Merrimack would need to navigate a regular season slate that featured several challenges along the way. And for a team that mustered just five wins the year before, nothing was guaranteed.
The start of the season, however, could not have gone better for the Warriors, who soared out of the gate with an eye-opening, 63-60 road victory against conference rival Franklin Pierce. Merrimack ran up that record to 3-0 with back-to-back wins against Dominican in Nyack, setting up a huge test on the road against a nationally ranked Bentley squad.
Merrimack, however, did not back down, and led by two at the break against the Falcons. In the second half, Bentley used its depth to pull away, but despite the eventual loss, the Warriors had fully asserted themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the conference.
From there on out, Merrimack would close out the first half of the season with five wins in six tries, closing out the 2012 portion of the calendar with an 8-2 record, already eclipsing the previous year's win total by three games with the entire second half of the season to go.
With a playoff berth in sight, the difficulty of the schedule ramped up for the Warriors, who battled injuries throughout most of the month of January. Then came a six-game losing streak that, for a team as young and as playoff-inexperienced as Merrimack was, could have potentially derailed the season.
That would not be the case, as the Warriors ripped off four wins over the last five games of the year – including three straight to close out the season – to punch their ticket back to the NE-10 Championships for the first time since 2009.
Entering the 12-team, single-elimination tournament, the odds were certainly pegged against Merrimack, who finished as the No. 10 seed and drew seventh-seeded Pace on the road in the opening round. Making the task more difficult was the fact that Merrimack owned just a 6-6 road record on the year, and had lost 10 straight contests against the Setters dating back to the 2004-05 season.
For most of that NE-10 First Round contest, it seemed as if the Warriors' struggles against Pace would continue, as Merrimack entered the break down by 15 (43-28) against the hosts. But that was when the theme of Merrimack's postseason run – the flair for the late-game dramatics – began to crystalize,
After soaring all the way back on a 3-pointer from Lyons with 24 seconds to go, Merrimack trailed by just one. After a missed foul shot by the Setters, the ball found Rothman on the last possession of the game, and the sophomore tied it up on a jumper with six seconds left, sending the game into the extra session.
In overtime, Merrimack would outscore the Setters, 10-5, to seal the program's first playoff win in nearly a decade, as the Warriors advanced with a 75-70 win over Pace in the first round of the conference tournament.
Up next for Merrimack was a nationally ranked Stonehill squad – the No. 2 seed in the NE-10 Championships – one that it had lost by 17 points and 12 points at home and on the road, respectively, during the course of the regular season.
But straight from the get-go, Merrimack made it known that it was a completely different team than the one in those previous showdowns in the regular season.
Despite trailing by four at the end of the first half, Merrimack's hot shooting kept the visitors in the game throughout, and they would not take long to wrest the momentum away from the Skyhawks early in the second half, as a triple from Weissmann at the 15:18 mark gave Merrimack a lead it would never relinquish the rest of the way.
The Warriors' lead would shrink to as few as one (71-70) with a minute to go, but Weissmann put the game away with another huge trey before Merrimack sealed it with free throws, vaulting the Navy and Gold into the NE-10 Semifinals with the biggest upset of the tournament.
Merrimack's opponent in the NE-10 Semifinals was an Assumption squad that it fell to by 24 points on the road back in early February. But this time around, the team would have the overwhelming support of two fan busses that made Laska Gym more resemble Hammel Court.
Just like in the previous two rounds, Merrimack hung tight in a game that was labeled a heavy underdog. Despite that, the Warriors and Greyhounds entered the break all even at 33-33. That would continue through most of the second frame, but with the score tied at 64-all with four minutes to go, Merrimack's hot shooting would cool off, as the visitors missed all of their last seven attempts from the floor while Assumption used a 10-0 run down the stretch to seal the deal, closing out Merrimack's miraculous run in the Semifinals.
Despite the loss, the Warriors held their heads high, knowing that they had accomplished what many in the conference thought impossible. Merrimack – a five-win team from the previous season – was one of the top four NE-10 teams standing when all was said and done.
With most of the key components returning under head coach Monique LeBlanc next season, the Warriors should be favored to not only return to the NE-10Semifinals, but challenge for an even deeper tournament run next winter.
This is the sixth of 10 Merrimack Top Moments of 2012-13 Installments.
10. Women's Crew Wins NE-10 Cup V4 Title
9. Football's Historic Victory Vaults Voegeli to NFL
8. Men's Hockey Team's Dramatic OT Win over BC
7. Men's Lacrosse Stuns Top-Ranked Le Moyne
6. Women's Golf Claims First-Ever ECAC Title
5. Women's Basketball's Postseason Run to NE-10 Semis
4. Friday, July 5
3. Monday, July 8
2. Wednesday, July 10
1. Friday, July 12