Campus News

Women's Basketball Team Featured in The New York Times

Story posted February 23, 2004

The New York Times

February 21, 2004
Basketball Isn't Only Stage on Which Bowdoin Excels

BRUNSWICK, Me., Feb. 17 Coach Stefanie Pemper detests timeouts and rarely calls them. Forward Justine Pouravelis is an aspiring filmmaker, an opera buff and an honors student. Between games in the New England Small College Athletic Conference tournament, which begins Saturday, Alison Smith will perform in a campus production of "The Vagina Monologues."

But right now, the Bowdoin College Polar Bears have basketball on their minds. Sort of. They are divided into three teams self-named the Mighty T's, the Ferocious Ferraris and the Fire for a regimen that resembles an Olympics of shooting, passing and defensive drills. Some faces are painted, ribbons dangle from ponytails, and cheers and chants echo inside Morrell Gymnasium. Winning the team spirit component is important.

Only after the exuberance gives way to the swoosh of nylon as one shot after another falls through the nets are the Bowdoin women recognizable as talented basketball players who have put up a 23-0 record and are ranked No. 1 in the N.C.A.A. Division III. They have done it without athletic scholarships and while balancing extracurricular activities and demanding classwork at Bowdoin, a liberal arts college of more than 1,600 students.

They have done it well. The team's cumulative grade point average of 3.35 is higher than the 3.27 average of the student body. They have done it that way because they wanted to.

"I had decided not to play basketball in college," said Pouravelis, a sophomore forward, who led her high school team to the Maine Class A championship, "because I didn't want it to get distorted into something I didn't love anymore. But right here is about as pure as it gets."

It was only after she was accepted to Bowdoin and met with Pemper that Pouravelis decided she could juggle her study of economics with her dream of being a cinematographer without missing the operas that come to Portland. She has averaged 7 points and 6 rebounds a game, but had as much fun creating a farewell film for the seniors. Pouravelis melded her passions and cut a highlight tape of them that she scored to the music of "Carmina Burana" by the German composer Carl Orff.

It takes an eclectic and sometimes eccentric coach to mold bright, diverse personalities into a program with hardly any budget and a mission that demands that the players mirror the student body and participate in the college community.

Bowdoin found one in Pemper, a former Big Sky all-conference guard at Idaho State, where she was also an academic all-conference player. A former assistant at Harvard, she has compiled a 127-30 record over six seasons, won three conference titles and led the Polar Bears to three consecutive N.C.A.A. Division III tournaments, twice reaching the quarterfinals.

But the banners hanging in the gymnasium are not what impress Bowdoin College's president, Barry Mills, the most about Pemper.

"She instills passion, confidence, poise and values in her players," Mills said. "She is all about teaching responsibility and making your own decisions."

Pemper, 33, believes coaching is conducted during practices. Hers are crisply organized and competitive; shortly into the regimen, her players were bent over and breathing hard. She has also brought a Division I sensibility to the program, preparing typed and detailed notes on opponents. When the Polar Bears travel outside New England, they do so first-class.

Over the New Year's holiday break, Pemper turned a trip to play Franklin & Marshall in Pennsylvania into a four-day field trip to New York, where the team went to a Broadway show and dined at a French restaurant. Pemper also designed a scavenger hunt for her players, which included getting their pictures taken in front of the Brooklyn Bridge, visiting a museum and eating a meal with the parents of the freshman Julia Loonin.

Besides avoiding timeouts, Pemper makes her players meet first at halftime to decide what adjustments they need to make for the second half. "If I'm doing this right, they should be able to coach themselves," Pemper said.

On the floor, the Polar Bears have achieved the program's first undefeated season. They lead Division III in scoring defense, allowing only 44.7 points a game, and win by an average of 23.5 points, which is the nation's fifth-best margin. They beat the nation's No. 2 team and their in-state rival, Southern Maine, on the road, and have won two games in overtime the last at Williams, where they had to erase a 20-point deficit.

But Pemper is more gratified by the balance her players show away from basketball. The senior Kristina Fugate missed part of last season to study abroad in South Africa and put her studies in government and biology to work over the summer examining invasive plants for the state of Maine. Erika Nickerson is a classics major and, like Pouravelis, is a Sarah and James Bowdoin scholar.

So when Smith approached her before the season about performing in "The Vagina Monologues," Pemper got out her calendar to help her make it work. Smith wanted to deepen her commitment to the V-Day movement, which raises awareness and money to combat violence against women. Pemper has moved next week's practices to the afternoons so that Smith, her starting guard, will be able to rehearse at night. The conference tournament games are on Saturday and Sunday afternoon and do not conflict with the play's evening performances.

"I'm not concerned about her missing meals or getting enough rest," said Pemper, who will attend the play with her team. "I trust that Alison, as a 20-year-old woman, can make a decision that is important to her and one that she can be proud of."

Smith, a junior psychology major, says her seven-minute monologue is burned in her brain, as is the vision of the Polar Bears running through the conference and N.C.A.A. tournaments.

"I am branching out with the acting," said Smith, who was named the Gatorade player of the year in Maine as a senior at Bangor High School. "But the V-Day movement and basketball are both very important to me. We play serious basketball around here, but we're also serious about life. It's what Bowdoin is about. It's what Stefanie is about."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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