Hills­dale’s bench cel­e­brates after Allie Dewire scores during the Chargers’ win over Findlay on Feb­ruary 9. (S. Nathaniel Grime | Collegian)

The Hillsdale College Chargers’ season came to an end on Friday, March 8 in a 72 – 70 loss to Walsh Uni­versity in the semi­final round of the G‑MAC tour­nament. Walsh won the tour­nament, defeating Ken­tucky Wes­leyan College the next day in the cham­pi­onship game.

Although the Chargers led at the ends of the first three quarters, the Cav­a­liers outscored Hillsdale 22 – 15 in the final quarter, and led by as many as seven points with just 37 seconds remaining in the game. 

Senior forward Brittany Gray and freshman guard Lauren Daf­fenberg hit three-pointers on con­sec­utive ensuing pos­ses­sions however, bringing the Chargers within two, at 72 – 70. After Walsh botched an oppor­tunity to put the game away at the free throw line with two missed free throws, Hillsdale had one last oppor­tunity to tie the game or take the lead with three seconds left, but couldn’t get a shot to fall.

“Our motion had been so good that we were just going to trust our players there,” head coach Matt Fritsche said. “I thought our kids just played their butts off and thought they exe­cuted their scouting report per­fectly and thought their effort and focus was off-the-charts good.”

Gray led the Chargers with 24 points and made six of 12 three-point shots. She fin­ishes the season with 89 three-pointers on the year, a single-season school record.

The Chargers finish the season 17 – 13 and 14 – 8 against G‑MAC oppo­nents. Walsh defeated Hillsdale during the regular season, 83 – 56, the Chargers’ largest margin of loss all year. 

After beginning the year 0 – 4 and stag­gering through the first half of the con­ference schedule with a 6 – 7 G‑MAC record, the Chargers fin­ished the season by winning nine of their final 11 games, including a victory against the Uni­versity of Findlay in the quar­ter­final round of the G‑MAC tour­nament on March 5.

“The season didn’t start off how we wanted, but toward the end we played the best we could and gave it our all,” Gray said. “In that sense, I’m happy about what we accom­plished this season.”

Hillsdale enjoyed a season-high eight-game winning streak from Jan. 31 to Feb. 28, when they defeated eight con­sec­utive con­ference oppo­nents. The Chargers allowed more than 70 points only twice during the streak, and held oppo­nents to less than 60 points three times.

The Chargers will graduate three senior starters: forward Makenna Ott, guard Allie Dewire, and Gray. All three reached 1,000 career points over the course season — Ott on Nov. 19, Dewire on Jan. 10, and Gray on Feb. 21.

Moving forward, Hillsdale will cer­tainly miss the impact Ott, Dewire, and Gray brought to the floor this season and in the last four years. All three fin­ished in the top 10 in the G‑MAC in scoring during the regular season, and were the only trio of team­mates in the con­ference to average at least 12 points per game. Gray led the Chargers in total points scored with more than 400, Dewire in points per game at 14.3, and Ott in shooting per­centage at 45 percent. 

“We had some seniors that didn’t want their year to be over,” Fritsche said. “We had some younger kids that con­tinued to improve as the year went on. We had a team that really liked each other and had fun being together.”

Freshman guards Grace Touchette and Daf­fenberg were the Chargers’ two best players off the bench this season. Both appeared in all 30 games, and Touchette stepped up as the starting point guard early in the season while Dewire recovered from a concussion.

Daf­fenberg was the team’s fourth-best scorer overall despite not starting a single game. She averaged nearly 17 minutes on the floor per game and scored 9.7 points per game. She scored a season-high 23 points twice, in a loss to Ferris State Uni­versity on Nov. 19, and a win against Ursuline College on Dec. 18. She reached double digits in scoring 15 times.

After Gray, Daf­fenberg was the team’s best three-point shooting threat, sinking 52 shots from beyond the arc. Daf­fenberg was also the team’s best overall free throw shooter, shooting 87.5 percent from the stripe during the season. She missed just six free throws all year. 

Touchette was the team’s fifth-best scorer, aver­aging 7.4 points per game while being on the floor for 19 minutes per game. She scored a season-high 20 points in a win against Tiffin Uni­versity on Dec. 1, and scored in double digits nine times.

Looking ahead to next season, Fritsche said he and the coaching staff want to implement a better strategy for beginning the season strong. A strong showing against non-con­ference regional teams in November and December could have put the Chargers in position to qualify for the NCAA Division II national tour­nament regardless of their per­for­mance in the G‑MAC tour­nament, but Hillsdale was just 1 – 4 when its con­ference schedule began.

“If we played two-thirds of the year like we played our last 12 games, we would have been in the regional rankings,” Fritsche said. “We were as good as a couple of those teams that made it in, but our work in the beginning didn’t justify a regional ranking.”

Fritsche and the team were sold on the mindset of “peaking at the end” all season long. The Chargers played their best bas­ketball of the year in Feb­ruary and March, but they didn’t get the oppor­tunity to reach the top of that peak in the national tour­nament in part because of their slow start to the season. 

Reflecting on the “peak at the end” mindset, Fritsche sug­gested it would be better to think of “climbing to a peak from a plateau” next season instead of “climbing to a peak from a valley.” All signs point to Fritsche and the Chargers empha­sizing the quality of their per­for­mance early in the season more in 2019 – 2020. 

“We have to figure out a way to be better earlier and be sharper at the beginning of the year than we were and get the kids more ready for the season than we have the last two years,” Fritsche said.

In his first two seasons as head coach at Hillsdale, Fritsche has com­piled a 36 – 24 record. In the months of November and December, his teams are 13 – 11, while in January, Feb­ruary, and March, his team has gone 23 – 13 the last two seasons. 

While the Chargers are losing more than half of their total offensive pro­duction from their three departing senior starters, their incoming freshman class will feature six new faces. Fritsche said he expects to take a “com­mittee” approach in deter­mining how to replace Ott, Dewire, and Gray’s pro­duction in the starting lineup next season.

As the door closes on the 2018 – 2019 season, it tells the tale of two halves: a slow start spurred on by a perfect Feb­ruary and a two-point dif­ference between an early exit from the con­ference tour­nament and an oppor­tunity to raise the banner that reads ‘G‑MAC tour­nament cham­pions’ for a second con­sec­utive year. The Chargers fell on the wrong side of the two points.

“As a coach, you obvi­ously want to win all the time, but you want your kids to have a good expe­rience,” Fritsche said. “The first half of the season was a mediocre expe­rience, but the second half was a ter­rific experience.”