NEW PALTZ — As Maddie Van Pelt ascended the ladder with a pair of dull scissors, she leaned slightly forward and reached for support to brace herself. The team’s MVP, in both initials and achievement, had attacked the basket with aplomb for SUNY New Paltz, and it was only when she was up close and personal with the nylon that she betrayed any sign of nerves.
“I’m afraid of heights,” Van Pelt said, laughing through her jubilant tears.
The Valley Central graduate fearlessly scored 25 points, as the Hawks (25-3) fended off SUNY Cortland (21-6) on Saturday for a 63-53 victory to claim the SUNY Athletic Conference title and automatic berth into the NCAA Division III tournament.
Through the first three minutes, senior guard Van Pelt was the most aggressive player on the court, singlehandedly setting the table with a 5-0 lead. Paige Niemeyer widened the gap, stroking a 3-pointer that fell through the net so quietly it could have snuck out of the house in high heels. The 6-foot senior forward delivered an encore with a three-point play that extended the advantage to 15-7.
The Hawks’ offensive attack was like a relay race. Freshman Maddie Gillis seized the baton in the second quarter, spinning to the net for a short jumper before stepping out and knocking down a triple. New Paltz leapt ahead 28-13. But, like an annoying SUNY sibling, Cortland refused to go away. By halftime, the chasm had slimmed to 33-25.
The outcome was never going to be a gimme – two of New Paltz’s three losses this season came to Cortland. So, naturally, there would come a test of will. The Red Dragons breathed some fire into the third quarter. Nyia Longford scored eight consecutive points to trim the deficit to three.
In this gym, in this game last year, it was New Paltz’s mental fortitude that pushed the Hawks to their third victory in four years over SUNY Geneseo in the conference championship. The last time the Hawks missed the SUNYAC championship bout was in 2015, when Cortland ousted them in the semifinals. The school located three hours upstate had eyes on playing spoiler again.
As the wounded Dragons crawled back into this fight, the Hawks’ most mettlesome bruiser, Van Pelt, sliced through traffic and dribbled into contact to create lanes where there were none. These piercing drives made a difference, allowing New Paltz to hold a tenuous 45-43 edge at the end of the third quarter, the Hawks’ talons clasping their prey with a slippery grip.
“Maddie Van Pelt seemed like she made a play every time,” said head coach Jamie Seward.
In the final frame, Van Pelt was an omnipresent force, missing and making, pushing and cutting. Languishing and lingering in that frustrating space only a possession or two from claiming control, the Red Dragons lofted an incursion of three balls, all to no avail.
Van Pelt capitalized, a trey here, a two-pointer there, to cushion the point spread by a couple possessions.
“Take it like no one can guard you,” Van Pelt said of the pre-game sermon she received from her teammates.
Senior Marion Dietz, who had struggled all afternoon to sink routine layups, put the game on ice with a pair of free throws. Then she stuffed the ice in a cooler with two more hoops from the charity stripe. And finally, fouled a third time, Dietz filled the figurative cooler with champagne when she drilled another couplet.
“That was the best feeling knowing that they were coming down our throats and we were in control,” Dietz said.
This was the plan since before the season began. Seward’s sons, 5-year-old James and almost-3-year-old Luke, spend months getting hyped for the net-cutting ceremony and the confetti shower that accompanies it. Before the ladder was carried out, James and Luke stretched their arms as wide as they could, anticipating how tall it would be. “We talk about it all summer,” said Seward, who is also a father to 8-month-old twins, Nick and Jake.
Though Seward commands a full roster at home, it’s the family unit he’s created with his roster at work that has resulted in New Paltz reigning supreme of the SUNYAC.
This team carried a chip on each shoulder for the defeats suffered to Cortland this season, and instead of buckling from the weight, the Hawks snacked on the chips while they reached for their sword and slayed the Red Dragons.
And, Niemeyer said, “We’re not done yet.”