LAST BRACKET: Jimmie seniors taking center stage in Sioux City
Picturing either McKayla Orr, Paige Emmel or Bryn Woodside teary-eyed isn't exactly easy.
But even the senior backcourt for University of Jamestown women's basketball—three of the toughest women to put on the orange and black for head coach Greg Ulland—isn't immune to typical sentimental emotions.
Orr, Emmel and Woodside—who says she'll be on the court in some capacity this week—are preparing to suit up for their final NAIA Division II national tournament with the Jimmies in Sioux City, Iowa. Jamestown opens play Wednesday, March 7, facing Cardinal Stritch (Wisc.) at 10:15 a.m.
The seniors are well aware that their leg of the race is nearing the finish line.
"Oh yeah. I'm a big baby when it comes to that stuff," laughed Orr, a relentless defender away from the basket and a 1,000-point scorer for the Jimmies. "We've joked together about things like, 'This is our last game at Newman (Arena),' or 'This is our last time in the locker room,' and things like that.
"But I think we've kept it together so far."
All three guards have played large roles in sustaining an impressive run of success under Ulland, which will include the team's seventh consecutive national tournament appearance this week. Emmel has started all 33 games the Jimmies have played this winter, while Woodside and Orr have both been fixtures in Ulland's starting lineup the past three seasons, helping lead the Jimmies to an 85-15 record and a fifth straight North Star Athletic Association regular-season conference championship.
"This fifth year has definitely been my favorite, for sure, and a huge part of that has been my teammates," said Emmel, who fought back to earn her place in the spotlight after tearing an ACL and meniscus as a sophomore. Emmel leads the Jimmies this season with 75 3-pointers made and is ranked 21st in the NAIA in 3-point percentage (.429). "It's definitely a bittersweet feeling, ending this chapter of our lives. But I feel very blessed and thankful to have had the opportunity.
"It's kinda surreal to think about all the success we've had."
But heartbreak found the Jimmies during practice on Feb. 7. Woodside, the Jimmies' all but impossible to replace point guard, tore an ACL in practice with three games remaining in the regular season.
Woodside, who plans to have the ligament surgically repaired later this spring, has been practicing with a custom brace on her right knee the past couple weeks and will end her stellar Jimmie career—1,115 points (14th all-time), 476 assists (2nd)—in uniform.
"Today (Monday) I practiced fully and it felt good, and I guess it'll be just go in there and see how I feel," said the 2018 NSAA conference MVP, who said she was battling a flu bug over the weekend. "I told Ulland I don't want to be out there if there's something he wants to do, but I can't.
"I don't want to hurt the team in any way," Woodside added. "But even if I can just go out there and call out plays, be a leader and do my role as point guard ... The brace feels good, it's still just not going to be 100 percent."
Freshman guards Mya Buffetta and Mercedes Baumgartner have stepped in to try and help pick up the slack in Woodside's absence. But the Jimmies will need heavy doses of Orr and Emmel on the outside, along with Jenna Doyle, Jory Mullen, Marina Nowak and company inside, to try to advance in the tournament.
The eighth-ranked Jimmies sit third in the NAIA in blocked shots (159), they're a top 10 outfit in scoring defense (57.5 ppg) and are 15th in total rebounds (42.42). Doyle, a 6-foot-3 junior center, ranks second in the country in blocks this season (88) and is already the Jimmies' career leader in shots denied (140).
"A bunch of different kids will have to add a little to their game in order for us to fill the void," said coach Ulland. "We'll lean on our seniors quite a bit, and our inside game has come a long ways since the beginning of the year and we'll need to make sure they're doing their part too.
"Bryn's wired a lot differently than any player we've been around or coached," Ulland continued. "She wants to get out there and play—it's just, will she be able to handle not being herself?"
Jamestown has advanced all the way to the national tournament Elite Eight—a program best—in two of its past three trips to Sioux City. The Jimmies would face either Indiana Tech (29-3) or Bryan (Tenn.) (25-9) on Friday, if they're able to get past Cardinal Stritch (19-10).
A win over the Wolves on Wednesday would also give the Jimmies a single-season record 30th victory.
"It's definitely emotional for Paige, McKayla and I—it's that one last ride down to Sioux City," Woodside said. "It's going to be sad when we're done playing, but it's so fun to know that I'm always going to be connected to these girls and to the Jimmie program.
"There's just something about this college that keeps you hooked."