by Phil Soto-Ortiz, D3hoops.com
Getting recruited by a perennial power in any sport can have its ups and downs. On the one hand, you're going to have a chance to learn from established stars who have been through the battles of league and NCAA tournaments.
On the other, learning may be just about all you get to do for a little while.
Such was the case for four Muhlenberg freshmen three years ago. The Mules were on their way to Centennial Conference championship No. 8, and Brandi Vallely, Rachel Plotke, Christina Manning and Chelsea Gary watched most of it from the bench. The foursome scored a grand total of 152 points. Not one of them averaged three per game.
Three years, two more league titles and five all-conference honors later, the group may be the best class in Muhlenberg history. Vallely's name is all over the Muhlenberg and conference record books for assists and triple-doubles (she has five of the 13 in league history). Her career average of 8.1 assists per game is the most among active Division III players; there is no close second. Plotke, a diminutive shooting guard, took 56 free throws her sophomore season and made the first 55. Gary, an athletic 6-footer, and Manning, a defensive stopper, round out a foursome that could be on the brink of a historic season.
Not bad for a group that may have, at least for a few moments, lacked confidence when their turn came to carry the torch for coach Ron Rohn's dynasty.
"I remember the first game in (the fall of) 2015, against Moravian," Rohn said. "They were shaking – physically shaking – during the pre-game introductions. I remember Brandi Vallely and Christina Manning saying to me later, 'I hope we don't end up being terrible and ruining the tradition here.'"
There was very little chance of that. Vallely and Plotke earned first-team honors as the team went 25-3 and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament. The Mules won their third straight title last year, becoming the first CC team to win three championships in a row. They have started this season 11-0. Their success has come as little surprise to at least one of the former Mules who kept the current ones from playing as freshmen.
"I think I can speak for all the other seniors (from the class of 2015): we knew this class was going to be special," said Hannah Rush, the point guard from that team. "Just from the way they came to practice every day. They basically made us better. We knew this was coming. We just didn't know it would be this amazing.
"I knew it was a talented class," Rohn said, echoing his former player. "I knew we'd be in good hands their sophomore year, but I didn't ever think that team would go 25-3. There's a certain chemistry a group has that you're not going to see until they start playing every day."
Rush hosted Vallely when she took her overnight visit as a recruit, then ended up going against her in practice before and after Vallely missed a long stretch of her freshman season with foot injuries. She saw her potential then.
"I'd see her in practice and say, 'This girl – she's so good,'" Rush said. "Her defense is incredible. She's really a problem on the court – in all the best ways. Even the determination in coming back from the injury. She was in the gym every day. At the end of the season, having her on us in practice was awesome."
It's her passing, however, that stands out to most observers of Vallely, who last year was named among the best point guards in all of Division III basketball, men's and women's.
"One thing about her: she knows what kind of pass to throw to what person," Rohn said. "That's instinctive. I didn't teach her that. And that's across the board for her. She knows when to push, when to back it out. She has incredible court vision."
Gary and Plotke are on the receiving end of the bulk of Vallely's assists. Rohn said Gary has come to embrace running the floor in Muhlenberg's up-tempo game, because she knows Vallely will make it pay off with an assist.
"I literally tell her, 'If you get open, if you beat them down the floor, I'll get you the ball and nobody's stopping you,'" Vallely said of Gary. "I can get the ball to her easily."
Plotke said Vallely's assists to her are more a matter of when than how.
"It's really the timing of her passes to me," Plotke said. "I'm always tightly guarded, but if I'm free for even half a second, that half-second is when she gets me the ball."
And why wouldn't she? If Vallely wants to contribute to two more Muhlenberg points, she could hardly do better than to get the ball to Plotke.
"Oh my gosh, yes!" Vallely responds when asked if Plotke is the best shooter she's ever played with. "I've never seen a shooter like her. She's just so calm. She has no problem with the buzzer beater. I get the ball to her, and then I just think about getting back on defense."
"When it comes to shooting, she's as good as it gets," Rohn said. "Not only percentage-wise, but she always hits the dagger shot. Her sophomore year against St. John Fisher (in the NCAA Tournament first round), they made a run to get back to about five points down. I called time out and drew up a play for her. She just came out and drained the shot from about three steps behind the arc. One of our men's coaches was sitting behind me, and I just turned to him and laughed, 'It's nice to draw up a play for her when you know she's going to make it.'"
Manning's contributions to the team are more defensive and cerebral, and her coach and teammates marvel at them. Rohn recalled the first game of this season, when he put Manning on Moravian's star, Camille McPherson. McPherson, who averaged, nearly 23 points per game last year, scored 11 on 4-for-15 shooting as the Mules won.
Also this year, the Mules were in a tight game against Johns Hopkins. Rohn called a timeout in the third quarter.
"Christina came to the bench and said, 'What do you think about zone?'" Rohn said. "So we switched our defense midway through the third quarter, and it changed the whole game." Muhlenberg won in overtime.
If this keeps up, the Mules' warmups will start to get a little crowded. Each player's warmup shirt, travel bag and other items bears a star for every Centennial Conference title the program has won. Rohn organizes a team trip every three years to Europe, where he has taken note of the convention of World Cup jerseys bearing a star for every Cup that nation has won.
The players have embraced the tradition.
"The No. 1 goal is the Centennial Conference championship," Rohn said. "We value a league championship more than anything else we do. They really like climbing the ladder and cutting down nets."