Women’s basketball: After reaching 300 career wins, Smith College coach Lynn Hersey isn’t staying complacent
|Published: 02-08-2024 4:25 PM
NORTHAMPTON — Anticipation built as teams across Division 3 waited to hear their name called on selection Sunday. Smith College was coming off its best season (at the time) under head coach Lynn Hersey, going 16-2 in the NEWMAC, but the Pioneers came up short in the 2013 conference tournament final.
All they could do was watch to see if they would get a shot at the big dance.
Excitement percolated as “Smith College” finally popped up, sending the Pioneers to their first-ever NCAA tournament. But they’d have to get through national powerhouse Southern Maine – which notched its 29th tourney appearance – in the first round. Furthermore, Smith was going into the Huskies’ building.
But the new kids on the block got the job done without question, beating No. 8 Southern Maine by 22 points in a hostile environment. The win, Smith’s first ever in the NCAA tournament, was a turning point for the program under Hersey, who recorded her 300th career win last weekend in a 104-64 drubbing of Clark.
“We were unfazed by all the hype,” Hersey recalled. “We played fearless basketball, and we knocked them off. That was a pretty significant pivot, to be a part of the tournament and beat one of the top 10 teams in the country. It kind of showed myself, our staff and the players who were a part of the program that we had something really good going here – that we could compete on the bigger stage.”
Fast forward a little over a decade from Hersey’s first tournament win, and that’s now become the expectation. She was certainly right about that being a significant pivot. Now in her 17th season as head coach at Smith, the Pioneers are as close to a shoe-in as it gets every March.
Smith has won 20-plus games each of the past five seasons, and after a 84-26 home win over Mount Holyoke on Wednesday, the Pioneers (19-3) are one victory away from doing it again. As for tournament success, Smith reached the second round or better in each of the last four NCAA tournaments – including a historic run to the Final Four last year.
Smith knocked off Trinity 63-46 in the Elite Eight to reach the first semifinal in program history.
“Reaching a Final Four was sort of the next step,” Hersey said. “We had been to the tournament and Sweet Sixteens, but that was the next step. And ultimately, I’m really proud that we did it here at Smith. That 2013 team broke through a ceiling, and I think last year’s team broke through another one.”
When Hersey accepted the job in 2007, it marked her first time as a solo head coach (she was co-head coach at Amherst College during the 2006-07 season). Since then, she’s become the all-time program leader in wins, reached five NCAA tournaments, been to a Final Four, won three NEWMAC titles, earned WBCA National Coach of the Year honors in 2023 and has led the Pioneers to a 10-4 NCAA tournament record.
Hersey admitted she never expected that kind of success, but also made it clear she isn’t surprised by it because of the environment around her.
“When you go into a job, there are a lot of unknowns,” Hersey said. “But I took the job because of the knowns. For me, the community at Smith was really special and filled with a lot of good people. Usually when you have that as sort of a springboard, then a lot of good things can result from that. It was always a goal to turn it around and start an elite program.”
Milestones like the one Hersey achieved last weekend are always a good reminder of everything – both the ups and downs – that have transpired to get to that point. After starting 5-18 in her first season, Smith has only trended upward.
The veteran coach is thankful for all she’s encountered – from that first season up through now. Every single moment is cherished the same.
“I think it’s an accumulation of a lot of players’ and coaches’ hard work coming together consistently over a period of time,” Hersey said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to coach a lot of really great individual players and teams and have an elite staff by my side. It feels good to go into every game having really great people around you. This is really just a shared accomplishment of the people who have shared my vision and went to work every day. I’ve appreciated every moment along the way.”
Last year’s Final Four appearance, albeit a heck of an experience, isn’t where Smith intends to top out. The Pioneers are allergic to complacency, so they expect to be right back in the national championship mix in about a month.
“It’s been a really fun process to build this program to get to this level,” Hersey said. “Now we’re at the stage where it’s about sustaining it. That’s a whole other beast in itself. That’s the challenge at hand, and we’re digging into it right now.”