Dancing Again

Women’s basketball caps its first season in the CAA with the program’s first NCAA bid in 40 years.

When Ginny Boggess was named head coach of Monmouth’s women’s basketball program in April 2020, she issued a promise to the Hawk faithful that new championship banners would accompany those hanging in the OceanFirst Bank Center.

Those were bold words for a first-time head coach who was taking over a program that had compiled an 11-38 record over its past two seasons. But boldness should never be mistaken for arrogance. Bold leaders believe in their intentions, guide with conviction, and harvest the courage to be innovative in the pursuit of greatness.

In her second season, Boggess led her team to the NCAA Championship Tournament, the program’s first trip in 40 years. The Hawks advanced following a historic run in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) Championship Tournament, winning four straight games that included victories over the top three seeds in the field.

Banners are being printed; expect the lettering to be boldfaced.

“I didn’t anticipate it would happen this quickly, particularly with the move to the CAA,” says Boggess. “This championship was the result of a process, and it’s not just about what we did, but how we did it. This is an incredible group of women who are humble, care about each other, and are now forever connected.”

Standing atop a ladder to snip the strings of a championship net is the ultimate feeling (and photo op) in college basketball. For Boggess, the climb began the day she arrived on campus.

First Quarter: A Change in Culture

“Create a winning culture” is a buzz phrase often used by new head coaches; achieving it is never a guarantee. Boggess began her mission using a simple tactic: communication. She met and talked with her players, but equally importantly, she listened to them. Boggess was eager to build a rapport that extended beyond the hardwood and the classroom. To earn their trust, Boggess needed the student-athletes to sense that she cared about them personally.

Coach Ginny Boggess talks with her squad during a February game against CAA foe North Carolina A&T.
Coach Ginny Boggess talks with her squad during a February game against CAA foe North Carolina A&T.

“My first impression was how comfortable I was around her,” says junior point guard Ari Vanderhoop. “I mean, we went out for ice cream in our first meeting, so what a way to start! In our individual meeting, she began by asking how I was doing as a person. Then we talked about academics and basketball was last. It was clear that she cared about us from day one.”

Boggess established a set of core values for her program driven by the acronym NEST (Navigate. Energize. Sharpen. Trust.). The goal was to create a family atmosphere that fostered connectivity and faith in one another. They would win together, lose together, train hard as a unit, and have each other’s backs in times of peril.

“When we hired Ginny, the number one priority was getting the student-athletes to love playing basketball again,” says Jeff Stapleton, director of athletics. “It was amazing how quickly she was able to develop such a strong culture. Ginny looks out for her players and what is best for them, and they trust that.”

The process wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Boggess was determined to establish an identity of discipline and toughness, and that required a commitment to intense practices and conditioning. She wanted to push the pace of play and implement a style that generated more opportunities on offense and fewer second chances on defense.

Perhaps the greatest impact Boggess had on the players (and program) was her outlook on mistakes. Mistakes on the court were understood, provided they were aggressive mistakes. That mentality lifted a haze of playing conservatively—or, frankly, playing in fear of being pulled.

Ari Vanderhoop pulls up for a shot
during the Hawks’ NCAA tournament game against Tennessee Tech.

Ari Vanderhoop pulls up for a shot during the Hawks’ NCAA tournament game against Tennessee Tech.

“If I turn the ball over and it’s an aggressive mistake, Coach Boggy wants me to focus on the next play—that’s it,” says Vanderhoop. “That gives all of us the confidence to be aggressive making plays. Fear holds you back on the court, and we don’t have that here.”

The first season under Boggess saw points per game rise from 46.0 to 59.2. Three-point field goals nearly doubled, from 3.9 to 6.2 per contest. Assists climbed from 9.6 to 12.8, rebounds went up, turnovers went down, and the Hawks erased memories of a 2-16 season by posting a 14-16 mark in 2021–22.

The Monmouth women’s basketball program had a bounce in its step for the first time in years, but a new challenge was looming.

Second Quarter: Welcome to the CAA

When Monmouth accepted the invitation to join the CAA last year, it meant the Hawks would be competing against league opponents in eight states outside New Jersey, canvasing the East Coast from Massachusetts to South Carolina. The league was stronger than the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference and had greater visibility.

“Accepting the offer allowed us to align ourselves with some really fine institutions,” says Stapleton. “It broadens our recruiting base, not just for athletics but the institution as a whole.”

The immediate reality, however, was—oh boy. Greater size and athleticism in opponents, increased travel, and unfamiliarity with the league topped the list of worries for Boggess. Monmouth was picked to finish 10th in the CAA preseason poll, and the tenacious young head coach knew she needed to shift her focus from what concerned her to what she could control.

Bri Tinsley brings the ball up court against Northeastern in the CAA semifinal game.
Bri Tinsley brings the ball up court against Northeastern in the CAA semifinal game.

“I was getting squirrely about the move to the CAA and ultimately decided to put my head down and coach my team,” says Boggess. “I started to think about what we could be best at in the league. We needed to hold the opponent to one shot and force them to defend us in transition. If they’re able to get set, we needed to be the best three-point shooting team in the CAA.”

The players left the worrying to the coaches. They were excited about the upgrade in competition and poised to build off the momentum from the previous season. A double shot of graduate student transfers—Bri Tinsley from James Madison University and Lovin Marsicano from St. Joseph’s University—also infused the roster with energy and optimism.

“We knew it was a big jump but felt we were capable,” says Vanderhoop. “We attacked the challenge from the summer right up to the season. And the travel didn’t bother us. It made us feel more big-time!”

Monmouth showed up big-time by winning its first two conference matchups. A victory over Northeastern and a 20-point triumph at Delaware validated the Hawks’ presence and sent a message to the CAA. This season wasn’t about survival. It was about continuing the program’s revival.

Third Quarter: The Run

On Feb. 3, the 1983 Monmouth women’s basketball team was honored before a home game against Hofstra University. Former Head Coach Milt Parker joined members of the championship squad that had been the last women’s team to compete in the NCAA championship tournament. The proud alumnae met with current Hawk players before the game.

“They shared their experiences from that season,” says Vanderhoop. “They kept joking with us saying, ’83 needs some company!”

Boggess talks with her players during the CAA championship game against Towson University.
Boggess talks with her players during the CAA championship game against Towson University.

Monmouth posted a 9–9 league record and earned the No. 7 seed in the CAA Championship Tournament. The Hawks coasted to a 69-54 victory over 10th-seeded Charleston, advancing to a quarterfinal matchup with second-seeded Drexel. The Hawks shot 50% from 3-point range to eliminate the Dragons and move on to the semifinals to battle Northeastern. Down by four points at the half, Monmouth used back-to-back 3-pointers by junior Kaci Donovan to spark a 22-8 run in the third quarter and oust the third-seeded Huskies.

In just three days, the Hawks had knocked off three CAA opponents to advance to the championship match against top-seeded Towson University.

“I couldn’t believe how well conditioned we were during the tournament,” says Stapleton. “We seemed to get stronger as the tournament went on. We shared the ball beautifully and never had to rely on one player.”

With Monmouth’s warmup video playing prior to the championship game, Boggess looked over at her five starters sitting on the bench. She noticed Tinsley was crying and thought to herself, not good. Boggess then saw Marsicano was crying, and the tears continued down the line.

“I get emotional talking about this, but I quickly realized that they weren’t scared, they were grateful,” says Boggess. “They had an opportunity to live out their dream and win a championship with the people they loved. They were ready.”

Jania Hall goes for a layup against a College of Charleston defender during the opening game in the CAA Tournament.

The starting five rose from the bench empowered by unity and the gift of playing basketball with freedom. Tinsley immediately set the tone by draining a 3-pointer with the game’s opening shot. The Hawks overwhelmed the Tigers, mounting a 15–2 run and never relinquishing the lead. Monmouth closed the game by outscoring the top seed 18–2, capturing the program’s first CAA title and a ticket to the NCAA tourney for the first time in four decades.

“I told them they belonged up on that podium because they were champions,” says Boggess. “No one can ever take that away from them. Watching them dance and celebrate with their families and seeing the pure joy on their faces—it will be hard to eclipse the feelings I had experiencing those moments.”

Fourth Quarter: The Ultimate Dance

Every championship run has its ritual or theme song. The Philadelphia Phillies had “Dancing on My Own,” so what about the Hawks?

“‘The Griddy Dance’ was our dance throughout the tournament,” says Vanderhoop. “We did it anytime, anywhere, but especially before games and after wins.”

Monmouth punched its ticket to the Big Dance, and it was time to soak up some of the spoils: the Selection Show, a chartered flight, nationally televised games, and memories that will last a lifetime.

“The swag was amazing,” says Vanderhoop. “We got March Madness hoodies, shorts, new Under Armour sneakers, a bucket hat, a nameplate. We had cameras in our face, press conferences. It was all awesome.”

The Hawks celebrate a win over Stony Brook University in the regular season finale.
The Hawks celebrate a win over Stony Brook University in the regular season finale.

The Hawks dropped a 79–69 decision to Tennessee Tech in Assembly Hall at Indiana University. Losses are always disappointing, but the coaches, support staff, athletic administration, alumni, and University community were beaming with pride.

“Something I’m most proud of is how many CAA coaches and administrators thanked me after the championship game,” says Boggess. “They told me what an incredible group of genuinely nice, respectable women we had and [that] if they didn’t win the tournament, they were rooting for Monmouth. It tells me we’re doing things the right way.

“I’m so grateful to President Leahy, our Board of Trustees, Jeff [Stapleton], our terrific alumni, and the entire Monmouth community for how much they supported us and embraced women’s basketball. This place is really special, and I’m so fortunate that I get to be a leader here.”

Boggess and her players will forever be connected to each other, but they also joined another special family. Vanderhoop had one final message to the 1983 Monmouth women’s basketball team. With a big smile, Vanderhoop softly sang the words, “Y’all got some company!”