Delaney-Smith talks this year’s team, Ivy Madness, and the fight for equality
This is not a rebuild. This is a reload and refocus.
This year’s Harvard women’s basketball team will feature many new faces to the program, as well as what head coach Kathy Delaney-Smith calls a “new feel.” While five newcomers make up a third of the Crimson roster, there is one person that has been a constant for Harvard and that is Delaney-Smith. She is entering her 38th season as head coach of the Crimson, and during her tenure, she has posted a 602-408 record, including 11 Ivy League championships, and six NCAA Tournament appearances.
Delaney-Smith, an indisputed legend in the coaching game, will look to get Harvard back to the Ivy League Tournament — Ivy Madness — for a fourth consecutive season. To do so, the Crimson will need to figure out how to replace some of the scoring they lost, as three of their top four scorers from last season have departed. Madeline Raster, Sydney Skinner, Nani Redford, and Kelsey Bogdon, are four guards that have moved on, while their biggest departure came from leading scorer, Katie Benzan. Benzan decided not to return for her senior season.
While the losses leave holes to fill, Delaney-Smith is extremely confident in her team’s ability to do just that.
“We are very, very excited about this team,” she told High Post Hoops. “Our freshmen class has blown us away. We are thrilled with our five freshmen.” Gabby Donaldson, Gracie Martin, Lola Mullaney, Sara Park, and Annie Stritzel, make up the Crimson freshmen class. One thing you notice rather quickly is that all of the incoming players for Harvard are guards. While Raster, Skinner, and Benzan were their top scoring guards that have moved on, all six that departed were guards. Harvard will not only miss these six players on the court, but off the court as well. “They were “a strong class of dynamic leaders,” according to Delaney-Smith.
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While Delaney-Smith works to integrate a number of new faces into the program, the early signs of progress have been plentiful. For those that think that Harvard could take a small step back this year, they are going to be surprised.
“I genuinely haven’t experienced anything like this,” Delaney-Smith said of her freshmen class, and being at Harvard for 38 years, that is a strong statement. While the excitement in Cambridge is palpable, coach is quick to note that “they are still young.”
Even though a third of her team will be made up of freshmen, the Crimson will return some terrific players and dynamic leadership as well. The team will be co-captained by senior Mackenzie Barta and junior Rachel Levy. Barta, who has battled injuries throughout her time at Harvard, is someone that Delaney-Smith trusts and that her teammates will look to as both a locker room and on-court leader. Delaney-Smith says Barta “is one of the best shooters I’ve ever coached,” and will be a key piece for the Crimson. Levy, who also missed some time as a freshman, before playing in every game last season, and will look to bounce back strong from off-season surgery to be a key piece for Harvard at the forward spot.
Junior Jadyn Bush is the team’s top returning scorer, as she averaged 10.9 points per game last year, which included back-to-back 16-point performances in wins over Pennsylvania and Brown. Bush will be joined by former ESPN top-50 player, senior Jeannie Boehm. Boehm, who has started 88 of her 89 games played in a Harvard uniform, had a breakout 18-point performance in a win at Brown last year. Delaney-Smith will look to both Bush and Boehm to help lead this talented group, as they take on a challenging early season, out of conference schedule, which includes games against California, Quinnipiac, and Maine: all NCAA Tournament teams from a year ago.
When the Crimson take on Dartmouth to open up Ivy League play on January 11, they will be ready to go. There’s arguably no one that knows this league better than Delaney-Smith. Let me rephrase that. There’s no one that knows this league better than Delaney-Smith. “We’re one of the best leagues in the country. We’ve been ranked as high as 8th and last year we were knocking on the door of the top-10. That’s remarkable.” Remarkable, indeed, as the Ivy League does not give athletic scholarships. “You can come here and be one of the best in the country athletically, and one of the best in country academically.”
While Penn and Princeton have been at the top of this league recently, with one of those two schools winning the league championship each of the past nine years, Harvard has been as consistent as they come. The Crimson have made it to each of the three Ivy Madness tournaments, coming in as the No. 3 seed each season. Beyond that, they are not just one of the most storied programs in the league, they are one of the most storied programs in the country.
“I love [rivalries],” Delaney-Smith said. “I would say we are the one constant school in women’s basketball that has been competitive for the last 35 years.”
While Harvard has continuously competed for Ivy League championships, and Penn and Princeton have been at the top of the league since the inception of Ivy Madness in 2017, there has been a different team locking up the fourth spot each year. Brown (2017), Yale (2018), and Cornell (2019), leaves just Dartmouth and Columbia as teams who have not made it to Ivy Madness in just three years of the existence of the tournament. That certainly speaks to the depth of talent in this league.
This year, it is Harvard that will host Ivy Madness come March 2020. There’s no doubt that Delaney-Smith expects her team to be there competing for a championship on their home court. When asked about the tournament, Delaney-Smith said, “I love it. I love it, but it’s not perfect yet.” She went on to say, “the Ivy League has done a tremendous job in making this a classy event.. I love the fanfare and love how hard everyone’s worked to make it a fun event.” Delaney-Smith would love to see an eight team conference tournament, which would allow all eight Ivy League schools to participate.
While it may not be perfect, she was one of the main people who fought for the tournament to come to fruition. “We didn’t go to an Ivy League meeting without spending hours, and hours, and hours fighting for a tournament. We spent close to 25 years doing that.”
It comes as no surprise to hear that Delaney-Smith fought for this. She has spent her entire career fighting for women’s rights and women’s equality, especially in the world of sports, and specifically in women’s basketball. The women’s game has improved immensely, and in many ways over the past 20 years, but while it has become more popular, there are still many obstacles that face the women’s game in their effort towards equality. According to Delaney-Smith, it’s important to remember that, “Even doesn’t mean doing the same thing for men and women, because you have to work harder for women. You have to.”
Delaney-Smith, who has stayed at Harvard for virtually her entire career due to, as she mentioned, their commitment to Title IX 38 years ago and ever since, wants to live in a world where the pay, coverage, and support is the same across genders. “I want some die-hard people, that know that it’s time, and if we work harder for women, eventually you won’t have to. Eventually when everything is even and equal. That’s the world I want to live in.”
The work and the impact that Delaney-Smith has had on so many young women during her time at Harvard can’t be measured. She has won numerous games and championships, and will always be the first head coach of a No. 16 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed, when her 1998 Crimson team defeated Stanford. They didn’t just win the game, they defeated arguably, the decade’s best team, at home, with one of the best coaches to ever do it in Tara VanDerveer.
Beyond her work in leading her players on the court, perhaps it’s her work off the court that has impacted so many more. Her fight and desire to put the Ivy League on the map as one of the country’s best leagues is unmatched. Her fight for equality in the women’s game has not only impacted, but inspired both men and women to join that fight, and help drive purposeful change for the next generation of young women.
In the end, the lesson is simple. While Harvard will be a force to be reckoned with in the Ivy League this year, those players will carry the lessons they’ve learned from their head coach with them for the rest of their lives. Those lessons will help impact so many others that they come in contact with, and it all starts with Delaney-Smith.
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