By Andy Sneddon
Centralight magazine, Winter 2014
In the fall of 2011, Central Michigan women's basketball coach Sue Guevara welcomed a freshman class that brought great promise.
Guevara was entering her fifth year as the Chippewas' coach, and her program had taken a firm hold. The previous year, the Chippewas had won 20 games for the first time in two decades, and the team reached the semifinals of the conference tournament for the first time in nearly as long.
Guevara knew full well that based on the collective record of that 2011 freshman group, the foundation was there for something special.
"Quite frankly when they came in, I expected that we would take it up a major level their first year," Guevara says, "which is totally unfair to a recruiting class."
Jas'Mine Bracey, Crystal Bradford, Jessica Green and Kerby Tamm entered their senior season this fall with the opportunity to take CMU women's basketball to unprecedented heights.
"It's definitely a now-or-never thing because we're not going to get this moment back," Bracey says. "This is our last year."
'We want to leave our legacy here'
The first three years have been exceptional by any measure. The Chippewas are 61-40; they won the Mid-American Conference West Division championship last season, CMU's first regular-season league title since it won the predivisional MAC crown in 1985.
The Chippewas reached the MAC Tournament championship game during the quartet's freshman season, losing a one-point heartbreaker to Eastern Michigan. They captured the tournament title the next year, landing the CMU program its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1984.
Bracey, Bradford, Green and Tamm comprised four-fi fths of CMU's starting lineup a year ago and all have played critical roles in the team's success.
"We want to leave our legacy here," says Bradford, the reigning MAC Player of theYear who, even if she never played another minute in a Chippewa uniform, has left a nearly unmatched statistical mark on the program. "It should be a show this year. I'm shooting for a movie-like fairy tale ending.
"I feel that with the talent and the work ethic that we have, we should have won all three rings by now, but it didn't happen the way it should have," Bradford says "which is life."
The players' bonds stem from the victories and the successes and perhaps more so from losses and tragedies.
Green was lost to a knee injury at the end of her sophomore year. Bradford suffered a similar fate as CMU entered the MAC Tournament last spring and was upset in its first-round game.
"It was a learning experience, a life experience that I had to go through," Bradford says. "Being injured, I was a coach. I found a new love."
An injured Green looked on as her teammates won the MAC Tournament title in 2013 and then lost a first-round NCAA Tournament game.
"I cried to myself; I didn't let my teammates see me cry," Green says. "When we got the NCAA Tournament, I really wanted to play. We lost, and I felt like I could have been out there helping, and we possibly could have gone to the second round."
Coach Guevara, now well into her fourth decade of college and professional coaching, saw the lesson that both Bradford and Green so painfully endured – and Bracey and Tamm saw up close.
"Life," Guevara says, "moves on without you."
Each covets being a part of what may be this season.
"You definitely appreciate it more because when it's taken away from you, you can't do anything but watch," Green said. "It's definitely an eye-opener because you could never have a chance to play again. But since you do, take advantage of it, work hard and get back out there with your team."
From good to great
Bracey and Bradford were high school teammates, and they played AAU ball with Green for years before coming to Mount Pleasant. They meshed with Tamm, who earned her keep with a remarkable work ethic and a team-first attitude.
And while the group was clearly talented, that will take a team only so far. It needs intangibles to go from good to great.
"Over the years, we grew as friends off the court, which helped us a lot on the court," Bracey says. "Because Jess and Crystal and I played together before – from when we were like 10 up until now – yes, we have a strong bond. And when we came in with Kerb and we got to know her, it's like we're four sisters out there.
"It helps a lot on the court. Because we know each other, we know different things that others are going to do, looks. Like when somebody's going back-door, it's just a look. We know it."
Traits like that come only with familiarity, an outgrowth of countless hours on the gym floor together, in the weight room and on the never-ending litany of road trips that are a fact of life in college athletics.
It also comes from traveling abroad together and in partaking in team-organized leadership exercises orchestrated by Guevara, who knows that a collection of talent is one thing, a team is quite another.
"Coach G has not only helped us grow on the court, she's helped us grow as young women through diff erent things that have nothing to do with basketball," Bracey says. "Traveling the world, manners, conducting ourselves a certain way, all that stuff."
An added dimension
The senior group added another piece to the puzzle last season when Lorreal Jones transferred in from St. Louis. The Detroit native could not dress for games last season under NCAA transfer rules, but she practiced daily and found her niche.
"It was hard at times," Jones says. "But it was fulfilling to watch the team grow and to collaborate with the team and the players, even if it was just in practice."
Being a relative newcomer, Jones has a unique perspective on what sets the group apart.
"They are all great players, some of the best I've ever played with," she says. "When I see them, I see the potential of what we can be together. We have a power dynamic."
It's taken a great deal of cultivation on Guevara's part to get this group where it is today. You don't last as long in the coaching game as Guevara has without a visceral feel for players.
"We always have a good time and laugh, but she knows when we need to buckle down and be serious," Tamm says. "She cares about you more as a person than as a player. She pushes you, and she's not afraid to tell you how it is, which is what you need.
"I just have the utmost respect for her as a person and as a coach."
A coach on and off the court
Bradford, who Guevara says is the best player she has ever coached, echoes Tamm's sentiments.
"On and off the court I have matured tremendously," Bradford says. "I've come very, very far. I don't think at any other university I would have matured the way I have matured here.
"I've had a coach who didn't just worry about me as an athlete, she worried about me being a young lady and she worried about me being a student. I couldn't be happier."
Motivation unquestionably burns hot.
"This class came in with a lot of confidence in their ability," Guevara says. "These kids knew how to win, and that was their expectation. They expected to be champions.
"To see what we do with this season – what is this class going to be remembered for? Usually it's a single player who is a program changer. This is a class of program changers."