Garrett and DeKalb alums lead way as Trine University women’s basketball heads to NCAA Division III Sweet 16

Trine University junior Brandi Dawson, right, goes up for a shot during a recent game. (Photo courtesy Trine University)
Trine University's Brandi Dawson works for position inside during a recent game. (Photo courtesy Trine University)
Hayley Martin of Trine University goes up for a shot. (Photo courtesy Trine University)
Trine University women's basketball coach Ryan Gould instructs during a game. (Photo courtesy Trine University)

After a year of firsts last season, Trine University’s women’s basketball team added another one this time around: The Thunder’s first trip to the NCAA Division III Sweet 16.

Trine’s reward for continued excellence: A game vs. Wartburg, undefeated and ranked second in the country. And the game is on Wartburg’s home court.

No one said becoming a national contender would be easy.

“I think we’re good enough (to contend for a title),” coach Ryan Gould said. “We played the No. 1 team in the country, Amherst College, and they beat us by five. We played Hope College, ranked No. 3, and we beat them once and they beat us twice. I think we’re good enough to challenge.”

No. 7 Trine (26-3) plays No. 2 Wartburg (29-0) at 8 p.m. Friday in Levick Arena, Waverly, Iowa.

Gould is in his fourth season as Trine coach, following a successful run as Snider High School girls coach. He has built the program into a contender, leading it to its first conference title and first NCAA DIII tournament berth last season.

Two of his main cogs are from Trine’s backyard: junior Brandi Dawson, a Garrett High School alum, and senior Hayley Martin, a DeKalb alum.

Dawson became a DIII force last season, earning All-American honors, and she leads the Thunder in scoring (14.4 points per game) and is second in rebounding (6.2 per game). She is a two-time Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association Most Valuable Player. Martin averages 11.2 points and a team-best 6.4 rebounds per game.

“They’ve done some great things and they’ve kind of grown up in the program,” Gould said. “A lot of these kids we’ve had for three seasons, and it’s a lot of fun to see that growth and to see them achieve some of the things we always thought was possible.”

Martin transferred to Trine after her freshman year at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and bought into Gould’s defense-first philosophy from the start. She has since been the MIAA Defensive Player of the Year in consecutive seasons.

Defense, she says, is a mixture of work in practice and desire.

Trine has held its opponents to 46.6 points per game, which ranks second in Division III to Amherst’s 38.2 points per game. Wartburg, Trine’s next opponent, averages 77.8 points per game.

“I think our success has been a combination of a lot of things, but our defense is really our constant,” Martin said. “We know if our offensive shots aren’t falling, we can still rely on our defense. Experience plays a role, too. We have a lot of upperclassmen.”

Dawson is Trine’s offensive focal point, using her size, strength and post skills to great advantage.

“She’s an awesome offensive threat for our team,” Martin said. “She knows how to score the ball and create her own shots. She’s competitive and that helps us when we were in tournament type atmosphere.”

Dawson credits Martin for strong senior leadership.

“She has a lot of toughness and we can pound the ball into her and she’ll make a move,” Dawson said. “She just works hard every single day and will do anything to help everyone else. She’s a great leader.”

Dawson said larger crowds inspire the team, and the Thunder will not be intimidated playing Wartburg on the Wartburg court.

Like Martin, Dawson points to the Thunder’s defense as the common denominator to success that gives it a chance every game.

“We always know we can lock down whenever we are a bit off and not making shots we normally make,” Dawson said. “We rely on defense to get the job done.”

The Thunder’s other starting players include junior guard Cassidy Williams from Archbold, Ohio; sophomore guard Katy Steers from Portage; and senior guard Kayla Freeman from Battle Creek, Mich. Churubusco alum Montana Martin is one of the key players off the bench.

Gould’s staff includes well-known and respected Fort Wayne coaches Andy Rang and Craig Taylor.

“The word ‘together’ is a big word for us,” Dawson said. “When we’re down, we pick each other up.”

Playing on the road, in front of a crowd that will be pro-Wartburg on Friday night?

No problem, Dawson said.

“If anything, that makes us more excited and more ready to play,” Dawson said. “Big crowds don’t really faze us. It pumps us up.”