by Matt DiFilippo

Rachel Mack ’12 takes a shot in a game against Middlebury.

Both the women’s basketball team and new coach Christine Clancy had a lot to live up to coming into this season: a 24-5 record the previous year including two games in the national NCAA Division III tournament.

Under Clancy, who had been an assistant in 2009-10, the Mules finished 22-6 this year and again came tantalizingly close to the Sweet 16, losing 58-53 to William Paterson in the second round of the national tourney. “A couple of layups here or there in a couple of games and we could have set program history again,” Clancy said.

Clancy said the Mules became a target for opponents after their 24-win season. “I think the expectations were a lot higher for our players, and it made other teams get up for our game more than they maybe have in the past,” she said. “Beating Colby became sort of a big milestone.”

“The attitude,” said senior Jules Kowalski, “was that the Colby women’s basketball program was one to be reckoned with.”

Clancy perceived herself to be at the center of these expectations. After Lori Gear McBride left to coach at the University of Vermont, Clancy was named interim coach, and she knew that if Colby suffered a significant drop-off, she would be seen as the biggest reason.

“It was definitely high pressure, but that’s part of the thing that I like most about athletics,” Clancy said. “I want to be around winning programs, and if you’re in a winning program there’s a lot of pressure. I think that helped the whole team with our success.”

In a 12-week season the Mules never lost back-to-back games, even when it required three overtimes to defeat Bates in January. “We won nine games freshman year, and junior and senior year were two twenty-win seasons,” Kowalski said. “It’s really amazing.”

Colby enjoyed a deep bench, with a solid rotation of 10 players who averaged 10 to 28 minutes per game. The Mules shot 45 percent from the floor compared to 37 percent by their opponents, and they had an advantage of nine more rebounds per game.

Rachael Mack ’12 led Colby in scoring (12.5 points per game) and rebounding (8.2 per game). Kowalski, who was named to the Women’s Basketball Association‘s All-New England first team, averaged 12.1 points and 7.5 rebounds, and Aarika Ritchie ’12 chipped in with 10.5 points per game. Also contributing to the scoring were Diana Manduca ’13 (9.2) and Jil Vaughan ’12 (9.0).

Among 441 programs in the nation, Colby ranked fifth in free-throw percentage, 15th in field-goal percentage, 22nd in rebound margin, 25th in assists per game, and 34th in assist-to-turnover ratio.

Kowalski and Karlyn Adler ’11 are the only players graduating, so next season will bring more expectations and more pressure to advance on the national stage. But Clancy isn’t daunted. “Obviously, Jules Kowalski is a big loss for us,” she said. “But Alison Cappelloni was a big loss last year, and Sam Allen.

“This year we lose one starter and the other four are coming back, and we have a couple really solid bench players coming back who are basically starter quality. I think we’re in good shape for the next couple of years anyway.”

“I’d love to be a part of it,” the departing Kowalski said, “but I think they will do very well.”