Amherst looking for perfect end

Caroline Stedman wants to play all 52 cards in the deck.

She wants to maximize every single week of the year. All 52 of them.

And ideally, the effervescent Amherst College senior guard would also like to win just two more basketball games this weekend. That would mean a second straight national championship. It would also mean closing out her college career with a rather impressive winning streak.

Fifty-two games.

"To finish this off with two wins, to be national champions, and to do this with my best friends, that would honestly be like a dream," she says with a Dorothy Gale-like earnestness.

Whether or not that dream comes true, Stedman has been following the yellow brick road to the Final Four for quite some time. She is part of a class that has made the Final Four their personal spring break every single year -- the only four times Amherst has ever been to that basketball Emerald City.

Mathematically speaking, getting to the Final Four in women's basketball in Division III is by far the most difficult task in the college game. The 441 teams that compete in women's hoops at that level are far more than the teams that compete in Division I (338 men's squads, 336 women's), Division II (296 men's, 281 women's) or Division III men (405). But every single year of Stedman's college experience, Amherst has been there. Last year, the Lord Jeffs won it all for the first time in school history. This year they are trying to repeat.

Their current 50-game winning streak is by far the longest of any of the 2,097 men's and women's teams playing NCAA basketball in all divisions.

"This has been the best four years of my life," Stedman said after punching the ticket to this year's Final Four with an 84-61 win over Emmanuel on Saturday night. "I've had the best experience, made the best friends."

The player known to her friends as "Steddy" grew up just south of Boston in Walpole. She was a gangly kid with long arms, great quickness and a hunger to compete. She was a three-sport standout at Walpole High, bookending the basketball season with soccer and lacrosse. But late on summer nights, or sometimes as darkness fell on icy December days, she would be out there in the driveway all alone, working on some creative move to the basket. That would be her signature ability. For all the steadiness -- the great handle as a guard, the court vision, the perimeter shooting, the lockdown defense -- the thing that set her apart was her inventiveness on the drive, finding angles, twists, and spins, getting to the basket effectively with either hand.

She was not recruited by bigger schools (her father, Bill, suspects that stemmed in part from the fact that she didn't play AAU ball, preferring to be a multi-sport athlete). She chose Amherst primarily for its academic reputation, but also because she saw a basketball program on the rise.

The Lord Jeffs had just hired G.P. Gromacki to be their head coach.

Gromacki was an unlikely success story. A Western Massachusetts native who grew up in South Deerfield, he figured he was leaving basketball behind after high school when he went to study business at Ohio State. He was thinking insurance. He was thinking real estate. But even as he continued on to graduate school, he couldn't help thinking basketball. Summers found him working at camps, including one back home in the mid-90s run by the coach of the local five at the state university. A guy by the name of John Calipari.

"It was great to watch someone who cared so much about basketball, and just had a passion for coaching," Gromacki says. "He was someone really good to learn from."

Like Calipari, Gromacki has been a coaching Midas. In 1998, he got his first head coaching job at Saint Lawrence, and promptly led the Saints to their first 20-win season. He matched that standard in all six of his years at Saint Lawrence, taking the team all the way to the national championship game in 2002. He then spent two years as an assistant at Temple, getting a taste of Division I ball, helping the Owls to back-to-back Atlantic 10 titles. After that, he returned to head coaching at the Division III level, leading the Hamilton team to a 20-win year and a first-ever NCAA berth in his only season. Then Amherst came calling.

Gromacki's first season back in Western Massachusetts was a revelation. Coming off a 12-13 season, having had just one winning year in the past six, the Lord Jeffs bought into Gromacki's focus on ravenous rebounding, tenacious defense on one end, unselfish relentlessness on the other. The results were a startling 27-3 record, a first-ever NCAA appearance, where the Jeffs made it as far as the Sweet 16.

That performance also worked wonders for recruiting, attracting a fabulous class: Stedman, Kim Fiorentino, Lem Atanga McCormick, Shannon Finucane, and Livia Rizzo. (A year later they would be joined by transfer student Jackie Renner.)

The six from '12 have been a dazzling half-dozen right from the start.

In 2008-09, they went 29-4, making it to the Final Four. Stedman did not start at all that year and averaged just 2.2 points per game, but her creative play and the potential that came with it was hard to miss.

"She can just do outrageously awesome things," says Fiorentino, who started all 33 games that first year. "She's always there to surprise us with a new move, a new dribble by someone, somehow, someway."

In Stedman's sophomore year that potential blossomed as if in time-lapse photography. She not only cracked the starting lineup, but wound up leading the team in scoring (12.3 ppg) and being named an All-American.

What accounted for the huge leap in performance?

"Her work ethic," says Gromacki, before his near-permanent game face yields to the hint of a smile. "And maybe I didn't play her enough."

Amherst was again stopped in the national semifinals, but finished the season with a dazzling 32-1 record.

There were not many rungs of the ladder still to climb, but the Lord Jeffs still set their sights on higher ground. But because this is Division III, where the term "student-athlete" still applies, as none of these players are heading for a pro career, there were other priorities to fulfill -- even with huge ambitions ahead.

So in the summer before their junior year, the class of 2012 scattered, broadened and deepened.

Lem Atanga McCormick, a double major in biology and French, spent six weeks exploring healthcare in Madagascar. Stedman, doubling in economics and Spanish, spent six weeks teaching English and helping to open a library in rural Costa Rica.

Then it was back to campus to try to take the next step. Last year Amherst matched the 32-1 mark from the previous season, but added the ultimate prize, a first-ever national championship. Stedman was slowed during the year by injuries (10.8 ppg), but delivered the goods at the crunchiest part of crunch time -- winning the MVP of the Final Four.

What could the Jeffs and their class of 2012 do for an encore? Somehow they had managed to get better each season. Now there was only one tiny upgrade possible: a national championship and an undefeated season. That would mean 33-0. That would mean 52 straight wins.

Every week in the year. Every card in the deck.

In truth, Amherst has not been challenged that often this year. It has been a UConn women's hoops-like dominance, with margins mostly so comfortable that the games had little drama. Twenty-five of their 31 wins have come by more than 20 points, and six times they have won by more than 50.

In the rare instances when they have been challenged, they have always found a way. Never was this on greater display than on a Sunday afternoon in January at Colby immediately after a hard-fought win Saturday night at Bowdoin, in which Stedman had played 37 minutes. On Sunday, it was all 40. Amherst had closed a 7-point deficit with 4:32 left down to one as the clock ticked under 30 seconds. With the home fans pleading for a stop and an upset, Stedman knifed into the lane, switched to her left hand in midair and flicked in a layup over the outstretched fingertips of Colby's center with 18 seconds remaining.

When Jackie Renner blocked a shot at the other end, Amherst escaped with a 51-50 victory.

Her game was back on display for one final time in Amherst this past Saturday night as the Lord Jeffs took on Emmanuel in the NCAA quarterfinals. The 25-6 Saints had had a great season, one of the best in the distinguished 35-year coaching career of Andy Yosinoff (686 wins, including a trip to the Final Four in 2001).

With McCormick's inside-out game (a team-high 19 points) and Stedman's jazzy drives (17) leading the way, the Jeffs cruised to a 17-point halftime lead.

"She's not only a great shooter, but she's great going to the basket," Yosinoff gushed. "In the first half, she made some drives that most Division I players can't make. That was a killer."

With 6:20 left in her final game at Lefrak Gymnasium, Caroline Stedman poked the ball away from Emmanuel's Meghan Kirwin and went in all alone. It was a frozen moment, like so many nights at dusk shooting hoops by the garage in Walpole. She laid the ball in the basket. A few seconds later on the next whistle, she came out for the final time, shook Gromacki's hand, and took a seat on the end of the bench.

Afterward, the Amherst seniors climbed a blue aluminum ladder and took their turns snipping cords from the net. They were clearly savoring the moment, holding up the strands as fake mustaches. When Fiorentino -- fearless on the court but clearly a tad afraid of heights -- gingerly climbed a couple of steps, McCormick steadied the ladder while Livia Rizzo gave it a mischievous shake.

G.P. Gromacki, his overall coaching record now 314-47 (a tops-in-college-basketball percentage of .870 -- better than Coach K, better than Geno Auriemma) cut down the final strands.

And now it's off to Hope -- Hope College in Holland, Mich., trying to pick up 52. No. 51, though, is going to be a formidable challenge. Amherst takes on undefeated George Fox University of Newberg, Ore., and its 6-foot-5 center Hannah Munger. George Fox, which won the national championship in 2009, punched its ticket by routing previously undefeated Mary Washington on the road by 23 points.

At this stage, of course, a loss is possible.

"Obviously, that would be upsetting," says Stedman, who is averaging a team-high 13.9 ppg. "But at the same time, I've had such a great four years. I wouldn't let that one moment define my four years here, which have been absolutely unbelievable."

Win or lose, the Amherst seniors will experience something they never have before. For the first time in their college experience, spring break will come the week after the Final Four. Still, there are no plans for SPF 40 and drinks with umbrellas in Cancun.

"I'll probably be here working on my thesis," McCormick says. "It's on the phylogeography of a tomato plant -- nothing too riveting, but it's pretty good stuff."

As for Stedman, she will click her heels together three times and return to Walpole. She plans to spend her first-ever spring break catching up on some rest, reflecting on four years of remarkable basketball, and maybe, just maybe, heading out to the driveway to work on some new moves.

Marty Dobrow is a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. A professor of communications at Springfield College, he is the author of "Knocking on Heaven's Door: Six Minor Leaguers in Search of the Baseball Dream" (2010, University of Massachusetts Press).