By SCOTT COTTOS
ADA — As a four-year starting guard who scored more than 1,000 points, Cookie Geroski would certainly qualify as one of the finer players to take the court at Capital University.
Still, as a senior, the St. Wendelin graduate feared having an ignominious spot in the career of 28th-year Crusaders coach Dixie Jeffers.
“Coach, in her career, has only had one person graduate without a ring,” she said, referring to an Ohio Athletic Conference championship. “So, (fellow senior) Jamie (Caton) and I knew this was the year that we needed to do this or we would be the next two.”
But rather than see her career end with a dubious distinction, Geroski instead climbed a ladder, helped cut down a net and joined teammates, family, friends and fans in celebrating fourth-seeded Capital’s 67-50 win over third-seeded Ohio Northern Saturday in the OAC championship game at the ONU Sports Center.
An 18-footer early in the second half put Geroski at exactly 1,000 points for her career. Later, her 15-footer, paired with a subsequent Caton layup, all but finished off the Polar Bears at 65-46 with 2:32 remaining.
“Even with my 1,000 points, all I cared about was winning this championship,” said Geroski, finally getting a chance to sit and relax in the wake of the game and the celebration. “It’s awesome that I got 1,000 points, but this has been our goal since Oct. 12 (the start of practice) and we accomplished it. It’s awesome. And I’m like, ‘Wait, we’re still going on.'”
Indeed, the win over Ohio Northern gave the Crusaders (19-8) the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Division III tournament. The pairings for the Big Dance will be announced today and action will begin later in the week.
Conference titles and NCAA bids are nothing new to Jeffers. This team is the 14th at Capital that she has led to the NCAA tournament, and two of those squads won the whole ball of wax. But on Saturday she got to feel something she hadn’t since Capital last won an OAC title in 2010 — the season before Geroski’s arrival.
On their way to the matchup against a bunch of Polar Bears that had beaten them twice during the regular season, the Crusaders knocked off Wilmington 57-53 at home and won 83-77 in overtime at top-seeded Baldwin-Wallace.
“I have enjoyed this week so much with these kids because we were the underdog and I approached it as the underdog,” said Jeffers, who after Saturday’s win finished cutting down the net at the west end of the gym and shouted to the crowd, “This is for all the nonbelievers.”
The 5-foot-6 Geroski’s Saturday line of seven points, four assists and two rebounds was rather modest for a player who entered the contest as the Crusaders’ No. 2 player in all three categories (12.8 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists). But her contributions to the victory weren’t lost on Jeffers.
“We would like to have had Cookie take more than five shots, but she did an incredible job defensively and hit big shots when she needed to, so I can’t ask for anything more,” she said.
Geroski’s contributions have gone beyond the statistics sheet for her teammates.
Simmone Gage entered Capital last season from Dayton Chaminade-Julienne, enabling Jeffers to put Geroski in the shooting guard spot more often. Geroski’s impact was immediate on the younger player.
“Cookie’s one of our hardest workers,” Gage said. “When she’s after it, it makes me want to get after it even more. Doing that, watching her work, work, work, makes me want to work. That’s what I’ve learned most.
“If (Geroski and Caton) aren’t yelling at us, coach is yelling at us, so we’d rather have (the seniors) doing it.”
A former St. Wendelin teammate, Colleen Fondessy, and Elmwood graduate Brittany Gross joined Geroski on the Capital roster as freshmen this season and have looked to Geroski for guidance.
“She’s always been a good leader, in high school and in college, and she’s had such a drive for it,” Fondessy, who has seen regular minutes off the bench, said. “Just knowing she’s a senior and this is her last season, I wanted to get (a championship) for her.”
Gross, who has done most of her game-day learning from the bench this season and did not play Saturday, has also come under Geroski’s influence.
“Cookie is the best senior leader I have ever had,” Gross said. “She’s always uplifting, she’s always telling me what I need to work on and how I need to be better and she’s honestly just a role model for what I want to be for the next four years.”
Geroski said she’s happy to have company on the team from the state’s northwestern corner — “It’s nice having someone there from up here because you can tell your little stories back and forth,” she said — and hopes to help the younger players to succeed.
“I know at times I’ve been a little harder on (Fondessy and Gross), but at the end of the day we always end up laughing at each other,” she said. “And that’s the point: We want to have fun while we’re doing this. We don’t want to make this a chore. We want to want to be here. We don’t want to drag it out and be mad that we’re here. I’m glad they enjoy it.”
Now, together they’ll get to enjoy the underdog’s ride all the way to the Big Dance.
“It’s awesome,” Gross said. “We were the underdogs all the way. We watched ‘Hoosiers’ on the bus today and it just reminds you how a little team can do something big. It’s really exciting.”
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