Keeping Score: Smith College pioneering toward a title

Published: 3/17/2023 1:17:42 PM
Modified: 3/17/2023 1:17:49 PM

Good morning!
The last time anyone asked me to write an article about Smith College athletics was when Valley Advocate publisher Geoff Robinson twisted my arm to write about crew. That was until Debbie Richards emailed and asked, “What, no word on the Pioneers?”

OK, how about 532 words? At 7:30 p.m. tonight in the Oosting Gymnasium at Trinity College in Hartford, Smith (30-1) will tip off against Transylvania University (31-0) of Lexington, Ky., in a Division 3 national semifinal. The winner will advance to the national championship game at American Airlines Arena in Dallas on April 1, all part of the Women’s Division I Final Four festivities.

Who knew the school that gave us Jackie Kennedy, Julia Child and oh yes, Jean Harris, could field a hoops team capable of winning a D3 championship?

We should’ve known, considering the first women’s game was played in Northampton at Smith in 1892, about a year after Dr. James Naismith invented the sport in Springfield.

Smith’s nickname the Pioneers is a tribute to gym instructor Senda Berenson, who according to John Sippel of NewsSmith introduced a “genteel variant” of the sport to her students. “Berenson was to see her version of the game ultimately lose out,” wrote Sippel, “and the ramparts of propriety sag and buckle as women players increasingly chewed gum, made indelicate lunges after rolling balls, sat or even sprawled on the floor while resting, and freely and loudly used slang and called one another by last names or nicknames.”

Smith has 11 intercollegiate teams that compete in the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference against member schools like MIT, Wellesley, WPI and Mount Holyoke (who they trampled this season, 85-24).

Their only loss was in December to Framingham State of the Mass. State Athletic Conference, 78-74.

This is Smith’s fifth NCAA tournament appearance under coach Lynn Hersey, who graduated from Plymouth State and has a master’s degree in sport management from UMass.

The players hail from eight states and British Columbia, including five from California two from Massachusetts. The lone local player is Westhampton’s Katelyn Pickunka, a neuroscience major who’s appeared in 113 games and has scored 1,177 career points.

Detroit’s Morgan Morrison scored her 1,000th career point during Smith’s overtime game against Mary Washington last week that was won on a three-pointer by Ally Yamada at the buzzer. Morrison and Yamada are the team’s leading scorers with 528 and 338 points, respectively, while Pickunka and Jessie Ruffner lead in defensive rebounds with 163 and 159.

The Pioneers have their work cut out for them. Transylvania has beaten its opponents by an average of 27 points. On Feb. 17 they beat Earlham College of Indiana, 100-39. Maddison Kellione (No. 5) and Kennedi Stacy (No. 24) average 15 and 14 points respectively, and Dasia Thornton (No. 35) has 195 defensive rebounds, 60 more than runner-up Laken Ball (No. 32).

The other semifinal tips off at 5 p.m. and matches Christopher Newport University (30-0) of Newport News, Va., against Rhode Island College (28-3) of Providence.

One way or another, the Pioneers will win. Hardly a courageous choice considering they have the same nickname.


Now for those other Pioneers, the Pioneer Panthers. The boys lost their D-5 quarterfinal match to Maynard High School last week, 45-32, but getting deep into the tournament bodes well for the school.

The sold out crowd, the cheering sections and student support reminded me of the days when Jack Zabek coached Frontier to the state title behind Mark Chmura and Kevin Wesoloski. Pioneer coach Scott Thayer and assistants Vin Funari and Fred Redeker have taught the players to move, pass and shoot, but more important how to keep a stiff upper lip and show character.

Of all the teams in Hampshire and Franklin counties that the local chapter of the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials could have bestowed the Jack Leaman Sportsmanship Award upon, it chose Pioneer.

Maynard was a bigger, stronger and deeper team, yet Pioneer led by four points in the second half. Finally their legs gave out and the Tigers went on a 9-0 run and never looked back. When Maynard’s fans began chanting “It’s All Over!” their coach Paul Howes wheeled around and told them to stop it, then turned and mimed “zip it” to his players on the court.

Pioneer is on an upswing. The hoops team is composed of underclassmen, the baseball team is coming off a winning season and the track program got the go-ahead to buy $15K of new equipment. “The number of kids coming out for spring sports has just skyrocketed,” said superintendent Patricia Kinsella. “We’re on our second order of new track uniforms.”

In some peoples’ minds the Panthers new theme song is the Beach Boys’ 1963 hit “Be True to Your School.”


Condolences to the families of Bob Elwell and Vic Colo. If there is a heaven, Elwell is watching Ted Williams batting against Whitey Ford, and Colo is coaching alongside Joe Spadafora. Here’s a tribute to two other Franklin County residents who passed recently, Art Belanger of the running Belangers, and Eileen Fortin whose smile outshone her brother Ken’s.


Our man in Jupiter Paul White watched the Marlins beat Houston, 1-0, at mostly empty Roger Dean Stadium on Tuesday. Grapefruit League games used to be a cheap way to see name players up close, but White said there wasn’t a recognizable face in either team’s lineup. “My day at the ballpark cost around $135. Parking was $13, the ticket cost $43 to watch Triple-A players, the program cost $7, a bag of 7 oz. peanuts was $5.25 and a Diet Pepsi cost $5.95. I ate two Jumbo Dean Dogs at $8.50 each and bought a spring training T-shirt for $44.”


SQUIBBERS: Something’s not right with the world if Samantha Breen’s No. 34 isn’t hoisted to the Mullins Center rafters next season. … The World Baseball Classic’s term for the mercy rule is “early termination.” … When Sean McDonough mentioned that Derek Lalonde coached at North Adams State, I looked it up and indeed the current Red Wings coach left one year before Shelburne Falls’ Chris Pettengill lugged his hockey gear onto campus. … When Dan Patrick asked Jim Boeheim when he realized it was time to retire, the longtime Syracuse coach said, “The four game losing streak. I didn’t coach well, we didn’t play well. We got beat four games by 20 points each game.”… Detroit rookie Parker Meadows was optioned to the minors this week despite hitting four HRs and batting .300, and his older brother Austin (batting .226) might soon join him. … Netherlands exited the World Baseball Classic partly because teams pitched around Xander Bogaerts, who batted .222 (5-22) but with seven walks had a .419 on base percentage. … Korea showed no mercy against China, beating them 22-2 with two grand slams in a five inning game. … Merrimack coach Scott Borek relished beating BC, 1-0, on home ice in double OT last week. “Obviously the Lawler, it’s a man’s game,” Borek told CHN’s Adam Wodon earlier this year. … Sirius-XM’s Jim Bowden: “Being around Kyle Schwarber you realize how special a leader he is. It’s hard for me to understand how the Red Sox let him go to free agency.” … Did Chaim Bloom trade Andrew Benintendi because John Henry, aka El Cheapo, didn’t want to pay him? Benintendi signed with the Chisox for five years and $75 million. Bloom got five players when he traded Benintendi two years ago: Franchy Cordero (.219, 92 Ks), Josh Winckowski (5-7, 5.81 ERA), and three guys still on the back of milk cartons. … Stephanie Apstein’s article in SI about the case of the missing baseball jerseys is full of extraneous detail — the Giants used clap-on lights during covid, the NFL went through 20,000 credentials looking to find who stole Tom Brady’s jersey at Super Bowl LI, and Astros players got $516,247 per share for winning the World Series. … Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown Hoyas were 13-50 his last two seasons, but according to Aidan Curran of Hilltophoops Ewing will get $22.5 million in severance pay. … Here’s a name the late Garry Brown would’ve loved: Taylor Broadway (Red Sox pitcher) … Spring arrives Monday at 5:24 p.m. In Zurich, the Swiss are so happy winter’s over they fill a big snowman with dynamite and blow him up. Colrain got three feet of snow, let’s do the same thing there.

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for decades in the Pioneer Valley. He can be reached at

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