Division wandering: Memories from college basketball’s biggest stages
A young blonde girl with wide eyes sits on the sidelines of a women’s college basketball game in St. Louis. Her job is to pass out water to athletes who tower over her. She’s there every game, watching in awe as her heroes sink shots she hopes to make some day.
In pursuit of her dream, she’ll attend the team’s basketball camp every summer and will be the only player who goes to both sessions each day.
She’ll watch them win the national championship—multiple times.
All this work will pay off when the Division I program offers start rolling in. She’ll commit to College of the Holy Cross for women’s basketball in her junior year of high school.
And three years later, she’ll transfer programs and return home to the Washington University Field House, taking the court for the coach who first taught her how to shoot a basketball.
That young girl was Jenn Dynis, current senior and captain of the Washington University women’s basketball team. She’s one of three players on the women’s basketball team who transferred from Division I programs, the other two being senior Zoe Vernon and sophomore Madeline Homoly. Three forwards—each instrumental in driving Wash. U.’s 18-2 record and conference mastery.
Dynis played for two seasons at Holy Cross, a school in Worchester, Mass. with less than 3,000 students. While spirit was subdued at home, the Crusaders traveled to many fanatic sports schools, including Army and Navy. For Dynis, the cavernous stadiums and thousands of uniformed cadets stood out.One of her most vivid memories took place at Notre Dame, a school with a storied basketball program and a legendary coach in Muffet McGraw.
“When [McGraw] came out, the lights dimmed, this Irish music came on and a video appeared on the big screen. Everybody starts getting up and clapping. She walks out; she’s waving to the crowd,” Dynis said.
Despite having some incredible experiences and forming strong bonds with her teammates, Dynis decided after her sophomore season that she wanted a change of academic atmosphere. There was only one other place she’d consider playing: on the court she’d grown up on.
Coach Nancy Fahey was quick to stick it to Dynis that she’d been wrong to go anywhere else.
“Holy Cross sent my transcripts to [Fahey] saying that I was released from the program, and she called me five minutes later, saying, ‘Is this real? Are you really doing this?’,” Dynis said, fondly recalling the conversation.
“I was like, ‘Yes! I want to go to Wash. U.!’ And she said, ‘Good, as long as you can admit that you should have come here out of high school, we have a deal.’”
Dynis is now fulfilling her childhood dreams in the Wash. U. Field House, averaging 11 points per game this season.
Dynis also now coaches the summer camps she attended as a child, teaching kids how to shoot with proper form the way Fahey taught her when she was 8 years old, the little girls tilting their wide-eyed faces up at her. She remembers the look well.
There’s one specific part of her memory that Dynis especially would love to recreate. She watched the Bears win national championships when she was little. Now, she feels like she can help bring another title home.
Vernon, like Dynis, reveled in the fanfare of Division I sports. She grew up in the basketball mecca of Chapel Hill, N.C. and committed to Winthrop University, located about an hour south of Charlotte, N.C.. After a medical redshirt her freshman year, Vernon played in 28 games as a sophomore and averaged 2.3 points to help propel the Eagles to a Big South conference title. The win catapulted Winthrop into the 2014 NCAA Tournament with an automatic bid and a No. 15 seed.
“Honestly, the reason I wanted to play [Division I] and why I went to Winthrop was because I thought we were good enough to win the conference tournament and be in the NCAA tournament,” Vernon said. “You grow up watching the NCAA tournament, and you think ‘How cool would that be to play in it?’ And then I actually got do that, so that was amazing.”Their first round game was a visit to No. 2 Duke University and the historic Cameron Indoor Stadium, an arena famous for the Cameron Crazies and its bombastic atmosphere.
Unsurprisingly, the Blue Devils trampled Winthrop, 87-45. Despite the loss, Vernon still remembers the experience with awe.
“It was really cool, especially since I’m from North Carolina. Our locker room was the Duke men’s locker room, so we were all choosing our lockers based on what player it was. We saw [Duke’s men’s basketball coach Mike] Krzyzewski, which was really cool, and it was amazing playing in Cameron.”
Like Dynis, Vernon desired a stronger academic environment.
“I’d spent three years there, and I’d exhausted the math classes, and I’m a math major. I just felt like if I waited another year, then I didn’t want basketball to decide where I went to grad school,” she said.
Once she decided she wanted to switch to a Division III program, Vernon quickly narrowed down her options to schools within the University Athletic Association, Wash. U.’s conference. Her brother, Nate Vernon, played at the University of Rochester, a UAA member, so she was familiar with the high academic standing and excellent basketball programs at UAA schools. Nate also had a friend who played for the Wash. U. women’s team and knew how much she loved the program.
Vernon made the leap, and now, she’s pursuing her math major while averaging 9.8 points and 5.6 rebounds per game.
Unlike Dynis and Vernon, Homoly only played at the Division I level for one season. She played at the University of South Dakota, a large state school with the most vibrant sports atmosphere of the three.
“It was pretty crazy,” Homoly said. “The fan base was so big … they want to see Division I basketball, so you have a lot more of a fan base already set, and then a lot of student support, so we’d fill up the bleachers.”
Homoly averaged 1.4 points in six minutes off the bench as a freshman.
The memories that stick with her the most from her time at South Dakota came during the Women’s National Invitational Tournament (WNIT), a basketball playoff bracket independent from the NCAA. For years, USD basketball home games were played in the DakotaDome, their football stadium. But when a new complex was built to house hard court sports, the men’s and women’s basketball team had to say goodbye to their longtime haunt.
“The last game in the Dome was [supposed to be] our final home game,” Homoly recalled.
So, when the Coyotes made a deep run in the WNIT, the Dome’s send-off kept getting pushed back.
“We had our second ‘last game’ in the dome, and our third ‘last game’,” Homoly said. “I think we got all the way up to seven ‘last games’ in the dome.”The media staff stopped updating the Jumbotron. Somewhere along the way, it had been one of the men’s basketball players’ birthdays, and the same “Happy Birthday” slide played at every “last game,” Homoly recalled, laughing.
The real final basketball game in the Dome, the WNIT championships, was the most intense sports environment Homoly has ever been a part of. A record crowd of 7,415 cheered the Coyotes on as they defeated Florida Gulf Coast University 71-65 to become the first basketball team from South Dakota to ever win a Division I postseason tournament.
“I was on the court for nine seconds of that game, and I was so excited,” Homoly said.
The main thing that Homoly misses from her time playing at the Division I level were the storied courts she got to play on. She described how starstruck she was competing against the nation’s top teams, playing against girls that she’d grown up watching.
“We had one game against [University of] Washington and I got switched onto a point guard who scores 28 points a game—one of the top point guards in the country. I was just like, ‘What am I doing here? How am I in this position?’”
That point guard was Kelsey Plum, and actually, she only averaged 26 points per game that season. You should still be impressed though. Plum is a consensus top-three pick in the WNBA draft this April.
“She was unbelievable. I’m not even ashamed to say she smoked me easily,” Homoly said.
Homoly made the decision to transfer, in part because of academic reasons but also because the coaches that had initially brought her to South Dakota were leaving after her freshman season. She ruled out transferring to another Division I school because of the rule that would have forced her to redshirt for a year, and she quickly determined that Wash. U. was where she wanted her future to be.
“Wash. U. recruited me out of high school, so I’d already known it and known the coaches and had a relationship with them,” Homoly said. “This was the only school I really wanted to transfer to.”
So far the switch has worked out pretty well—she’s averaging over 20 points in her last five games.
Homoly laid out what appealed to her about being in a Division III environment.
“People are here because they want to be here: There’s no scholarships; there’s no fighting for a spot or trying to be the star of the show. It’s all about working together as a team and everyone wants to be there every day, and everyone works twice as hard to just be a part of the team rather than [to] be their own individual,” she said.
The biggest thing that the three players had to adjust to when switching to Division III was that the game here has a slightly slower pace.
“People in Division I are taller, bigger, faster,” Homoly explained. “But I think playing the game itself is the same level of competitiveness, and everyone has the same amount of drive.”
Dynis added that when a player commits to Division III, it’s often due to their own preference and not attributed to a difference in skill.
“To be a top caliber Division III tea, you need to have Division I recruits. It just so happens that three of us are Division I transfers, but a lot of our girls were getting Division I looks, they just chose to go Division III instead.”
Because Division III program guidelines stress that academics are the primary focus for their athletes, Division III coaches must prioritize their players’ class schedule.
“At Winthrop,” Vernon explained, “they told us you have practice say, 11-2, and don’t schedule class then, whereas here, Coach Fahey just schedules practice around when class is.”
The other main difference is that Division III coaches are restricted from having official contact with their athletes prior to Oct. 15 each year. Instead, players sign up for a class called “Weightlifting: Strength and Conditioning,” taught by Fahey, but open to all Wash. U. undergraduates.
“It’s taught by her, ‘Professor Fahey,’ but it’s open to everybody—there are other people in it, it’s not just the basketball team,” Dynis said.
At a high-caliber women’s basketball program like Wash. U., the players described that the time commitment and practice schedule were identical at both levels of play.
“Coach [Fahey] runs this pretty much like a Division I program,” Dynis said.
That’s actually another important draw. Fahey is the only coach in Division III history, across all sports, that has won five national championships. She’s also the second fastest coach in NCAA men’s and women’s basketball history to reach 700 wins. She did it in 826 games; Geno Auriemma did it in 822.
“I’ll run through 20 brick walls for coach Fahey any day of the week,” Dynis said of her longtime mentor. “I appreciate her because she talks to people with respect, instead of yelling or screaming—she really takes the time to help you understand what’s going on and teach you basketball, not just teach you what she wants so she can win.”
“I’ll always brag [about] her because she’s just phenomenal,” Dynis added. “Not just as a basketball coach but as a person. I think we’re all super lucky to have her.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated for clarification.