This week, Three Rivers cracked the Top 25 of the NJCAA poll for the first time since the 2016-17 season.
The Lady Raiders checked in at No. 25 in the most recent poll after knocking off Division II No. 19 St. Louis Community College, which was previously undefeated at home, for its 14th straight win.
The last name the Lady Raiders cracked the Top 25 they went on a 16-game winning streak on their way to a 22-8 record. This year, they’re one win away from that total at 21-3 and haven’t lost since Nov. 30.
“It’s an accomplishment to break into the Top 25 poll in the country, you know, just for all the hard work and sacrifice the kids have made this season,” Three Rivers coach Jeff Walk said. “Now, the main thing is move up and stay in it.”
It was unknown how well the team would mesh with each other going into the season. The roster is composed of eight true freshmen, and seeing them gel this well is something Walk didn’t see coming at the start of the year.
“You bring in that many freshmen, you never know how well they’re going to gel,” Walk said. “You have ideas and hopes, but at the end of the day, they have to come in and buy in to what you want to do and how you want to play. And they all did from day one, so that was a good thing.
“But still, you’ve got to win a lot of ball games, you’ve got to stay healthy and have a little luck along the way.”
For players like Hailee Erickson, one of the team’s three sophomores and its leading scorer at over 13 points per game, climbing into the rankings is a great moment.
“It’s pretty awesome to be ranked in the Top 25 in the nation, that we’re getting recognized for how hard we’re working and for the games we’re winning,” Erickson said. “The Top 25 is pretty cool and awesome to be in, but I mean, we still have a lot of things to work on to get us to the national tournament.”
If the Lady Raiders keep climbing the rankings by winning their three remaining regular season games, it’ll open up the chance of them receiving an at-large bid for the tournament, although winning the region tournament and its play-in game still seems to be the most realistic path.
Now, though, the focus for the team is to keeping winning and enjoying the moment.
“(Winning) makes it a lot of fun,” Erickson said. “I was talking to some of the girls about last year and I was like, dang, we’re 21-3 right now. I said, that’s pretty cool. Not many teams can do that. Just to be 21-3, we’re showing how hard we’re working. We’re putting in the time. Every practice, every game, we’re going as hard as we can go, and it’s showing.”
The hard work has been showing. The Lady Raiders have an average margin of victory of 24 points this season as they’re scoring 84 per game and giving up 60. The versatile bunch has five players averaging double figures in scoring for the season. Freshman J’Kayla Fowler is out for a week with an injury to both ankles, and the Lady Raiders responded to the absence of a player who averages 10 points and six rebounds by recording their highest scoring total of the season.
Walk said he wants the team to enjoy the ride and do what it takes to make it last as long as possible.
The Lady Raiders will look for their 15th straight win when they host Jefferson in a Region XVI matchup at 2 p.m. Saturday.
Nate Fields - Daily American Republic